About Me

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Auckland, New Zealand
Colin was born in Belfast (Ireland) and came to Aotearoa/New Zealand in 2002. He was previously guitarist with Irish punk band Music For Deaf (not the later US band of the same name) and participant in UK/Ireland based Allotropes experimental collective. His current interests include experimental music (both composed and improvised), video, song writing and performance, and composition for conventional solo instruments and ensembles. He is a regular participant in the Auckland improv colective Vitamin S, one half of the duo Toy Triptech (with Rohan Evans), and has performed occasionally on alto sax with Jeff Henderson’s variable ensemble Superstars of Westlynn. Colin holds a Diploma in Contemporary Music from Unitec (Auckland) and B. Mus.(Hons) majoring in Composition at the University of Auckland. Recent releases include the album Skyway to Carpark (2012) and EP Short Straw, both are available to download from bandcamp and as limited release physical CDs. Colin is a also a Director of Angel Food, New Zealand’s vegan food innovators,

Friday, 20 January 2017

Thoughts on Umberto Eco’s The Poetics of the open work [Part 1]

Umberto Eco begins the essay by discussing musical works where a degree of freedom is given to the performer, not only to interpret the notes in a score, but to actually participate in the ordering of sections or improvisation and, in effect, the creation of content (Eco 2006, orig. pub 1965).  He refers to four works in particular, by Stockhausen, Berio, Posseur and Boulez and makes distinction between what he regards as ‘completed’ and ‘open’ pieces. He considers that although all art works are essentially “… the end product of an author’s effort to arrange a sequence of communicate effects”, there is inevitably space for individual observers to experience its effect depending on their particular frame of reference. This framing is set by individual and collective experiences and the particular context in which the work is shown.  It strikes me that this is a similar process to that suggested by the well-established theory of Piercian semiotics, usefully summarised by Thomas Turino (1999). Turino applies the theory to ethnomusicology but its relevance to other realms is clear.
 Truly ‘open’ works, though, go a step beyond this in that each iteration (showing or performance) of the work generates a distinct and particular trace that is different to previous outcomes. Rather than lamenting the fact that inherent openness obscures communication, the artist uses this knowledge to extend openness as a key conceptual part of their practice.
Eco draws a link between openness in ‘regular’ works and traditional modes of reading of religious texts, whereby layers of meaning (some of which may be paradoxically contradictory) are embedded only to be revealed under certain circumstances and with a particular mind-set on the part of the reader. This is a feature also of much religious and secular painting and iconography, even from ancient times. He points out, however, that this kind of reading had sets of meanings that were sometimes strictly described and quite fixed, as opposed to the much wider interpretative possibilities offered by more recent open works.
He traces the expansion and development of ‘openness’ from Baroque music through to Romantic poetry and into the 20th century. He relates this to prevailing social and political evolution; and even scientific progress provoking works that are suggestive rather than directly implicit in their content. Eco says, “The search for suggestiveness is a deliberate move to open the work to the free response of the addressee”. He refers to the works of Kafka, Joyce, and Brecht as examples of open literary works, particularly Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.  [Note to self: Is Finnegan’s Wake open or just impenetrable? I’ve never spoken to anyone who actually managed to finish it. Agenbyte of inwit!]
Turning to the subject of performance (I guess reading an open literary work is included here) Eco says perceptively, “Every performance explains the composition but does not exhaust it”.
He discusses the theoretical positions of both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty.

[Part 2 to follow]


Eco, U. (2006). The Poetics of the Open Work. In C. Bishop (Ed.), Participation: Documents of Contemporary Art. MIT Press. (orig. Pub. 1965)

Turino, T. (1999). Signs of Imagination, Identity, and Experience: A Peircian Semiotic Theory for Music. Ethnomusicology, 43(2), 221.

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