My Writings (translated)

My Interviews

Writings about Me



    I do not believe in historia (‘history’/’story’). I believe in structures and I aim to devise events which unbalance and reconfigure imposed structures. This may be the driving force that builds history, but it is not history per se. It is mythical, and hence it is recurrent.


    The basic unit of structures is differentiation, and thus the creation of dichotomies. There is no absolute way of getting rid of dichotomies (male/female, composition/improvisation, composer/performer, artist/spectator…), because, for one thing, they do not really exist. But we all know that we all see, hear, and think through things that do not really exist. These filters of reality haunt us like ghosts, and haunt us recurrently despite our desperate attempts at exorcism (a spectator is a specter!). And perhaps out of fatigue we choose to confound them with reality. But the only plausible way of dealing with them, as I see it, is to change them, and to keep changing them to show that they can be changed.


    For me, the function of art lies precisely in this necessarily localized and tentative securement of potentials and possibilities for changes. Otherwise any given work of art would seem too fragile, too transient and thus utterly impotent in the face of radical establishments and implementation of establishments via technological, economical and/or political channels. But it is the very tentative and impotent character of artworks that allow them to return without any care to history. In other words, art serves its purpose, precisely because we don’t confound it with the so-called reality or life.


    So we fight ghosts with ghosts.



    Kay Festa: Having organized two concerts of your music now, we have become quite acquainted with your Composed Improvisation and Improvised Composition series. But we don’t know so much about what you did before these pieces and what led you there. Could you talk a bit about your background and how you arrived at the Composed Improvisation series? I heard you studied environmental sciences in college…


    Ellen C. Covito: Yes, and having studied environmental sciences was what brought me back to music after a hiatus of several years. I was doing all these studies of climates, formation of weathers and their effects and side-effects. And I started to wonder why most music necessitates a weather-proof condition to be performed. I mean that’s why we have concert halls—to isolate and shelter the production and consumption of music from the weather. This also applies when the music is played outdoors, because most of the time, the weather is something that just happens outside the work and from which the performance of music may or may not be shielded. And, since the majority of music played outside nowadays employ tons of electricity, with all the amplification and loudspeakers, God help them if the music is not properly shielded! It seemed to me that music was trying hard to ignore the fact that there was always a changing weather in the world around itself. The environment is always a contingent factor, but one that could still bring catastrophic effects to music—just like to any other phenomena in society. So I started making a work that did not aim to render the effects of weather as neutral as possible, but on the contrary, inserted them into the very mechanism of the music. I created a series of composed modules that corresponded each to a certain weather condition, that could be arranged together to form a performance based on the particular weather of a given day, time and location. I called the whole series, Musica del Tiempo. In Spanish ‘Tiempo’ means both ‘weather’ and ‘time,’ and the modules were devised so that the temporal progression of the music would mostly be determined by the exposure of the score or instruments to the weather. In Lluvia (Rain), for instance, the number of raindrops that could be heard determined the number of notes that could be played from the score, or in Viento (Wind), the turnover of the score pages were controlled by the wind. I had separate instructions on how to mix the modules together which was based on the forecast probability. These defined the mixture in terms of percentages, like ‘80% Sunny and 20% Rain.’


    KF: What score were you using?


    EC: I collected various scores of music that had a certain weather-related word in its title, and used them one after the other. I ended up with quite a variety of music, from Listz’s Chasse-neige, to Windy by The Association, and so on. The choice of music added a kind of a meta-caption to the piece, which often times was odd and funny, since you might be performing Sunny by Bobby Hebb in the midst of a rainstorm.


    KF: So is that where your idea of “found score” comes from?


    EC: I started using that term later, when I began the Composed Improvisation series, but yes, it was already in practice in Musica del Tiempo.


    KF: Why did you decide to use found scores?


    EC: I decided to use scores that were already written by other people, since my focus was not so much in the scores themselves, but in how they are altered through their exposure to the weather. Also, like I said, the discrepancy or gap between the given music and the given weather in which it was performed added an interesting layer of linguistic commentary that I appreciated.


    KF: How did you move from Musica del Tiempo to the Composed Improvisation series?


    EC: After doing my weather music for some years, I became acquainted with several groups of people who were feminist activists. Influenced by them, I started reading several theoretical texts on feminism, or of feminism. Particularly, I became fascinated by the writings of Donna Haraway and Marilyn Strathern. By reading their texts, I began to see that the ‘environment’ or ‘weather’ I had been dealing with in my works, could be, and should be, extended from the exterior conditions surrounding me to the interior of my body. My ‘body’ is also an ‘environment’ and had its own ‘weathers.’ And as long as that is the case, there is no such thing as a neutral body. Now as you also probably know, John Cage with his graphic scores, had criticized the conventional belief that musical notation of any kind is determinate. There is no such thing as a neutral notation or a determinate score. You Nakai explained this very clearly in that text he wrote on my music. The seeming determinacy is actually the result of an institutional codification about how the score should relate to the sound. In other words, what is determinate or indeterminate is never the object, but always its usage. This was an important criticism. But I was always curious why Cage never went on to extend that criticism against the ‘bodies’ of the performers who necessarily come in contact with the score. Somehow Cage and all the composers after him criticized the seeming neutrality or the singularity of the score, but retained the neutrality of the body. This always puzzled me, but one day I started to think if that had anything to do with the fact that most of these composers were men.


    KF: That is interesting. So I assume that would relate to the whole discussion about marked and unmarked gender...


    EC: Yes, well it was a thought. Perhaps the marked-unmarked gender discussion that you say has to do with a certain tendency for females to be more susceptible to the weathers of her body… though that is also a generalization that doesn’t really go so far. But in any case, that was what occurred to me.


    KF: So you’re saying that the Cagean indeterminacy between the written note and the sound actually brackets out the indeterminacy of the performer’s body that is inserted between the score and the music?


    EC: Yes, because what connects the note with the sound is on the one hand institutional codification, but on the other, the performer’s bodies. Cage revealed the first layer of indeterminacy, but preserved the second one. His graphic scores never really questioned the physiological and technical particularities of each body that accesses them. But obviously, there is a vast domain of indeterminacy there that cannot be generalized so easily. So that’s where I decided to delve into with my Composed Improvisation series.


    KF: I see how that resonates with Haraway’s theory of “Situated Knowledge.”


    EC: Yes, Haraway speaks of knowledge, as well as body, as being always situated within a particular condition. And music always requires some kind of body, or more accurately, an assembly of bodies, including that of instruments as well as listeners. But I also think that my readings of these texts made me aware that these particularities of the ‘environment’ or the ‘body’ is not a simple given, but is always a construction. That’s the difference between “weather” and “body,” in my opinion (at least in the current state of technology, though I have heard that Russian army drops bags of concrete onto clouds to prevent rain). So it is one thing to expose the system to those particularities, but quite another to think of these particularities as absolutes and let them have the final word, so to speak. I felt that was where I could not agree with many of my activist friends. The particularities needed to be exposed, but also needed to be inspected and be opened for other possible configurations. There is no absolute neutrality of the body, but neither is there any absolute particularities that the body is confined to. But there is a tendency for male composers to lean towards the former, and for feminist activists to lean towards the latter.


    KF: When we did your Composed Improvisation pieces, I was struck by how much focus is placed on the issue of visibility/invisibility. Could you talk a bit about that particular focus on the eye, in regards to the situatedness of the body that you were just saying?


    EC: As with any indeterminacy, the indeterminacy between the score and the body explored in the Composed Improvisation pieces problematizes the issue of pre-established hierarchical control. And I think the visibility of the score, both for performers who read them, as well as for the audience who sees the performers reading them, has functioned as the primary channel for this hierarchy in Western music. I mean, the whole training of solfege that you do as a child is to make sure you listen to what you see, or what you are able to see, and not vice versa. So that gives the sight a privileged status in my works as well. But of course the visual channel cannot be isolated; seeing is crucial only because it affects other capacities of the body. You see in order to listen, you see in order to play an instrument. And I believe some pieces in the Composed Improvisation series focus on these couplings of visibility with other physical activities that necessarily employ other body parts. So the emphasis on visibility is only a starting point from which indeterminacy spreads out to permeate other modes of perceiving and doing.


    KF: Is that also why you introduced dance in Improvised Composition F?


    EC: Yes, but you must know that when I wrote that piece, I didn’t intend it to be solely a dance piece. That is why the instructions say that it could be done as a theatre, or music, or any other kind of performance art. The difference between Improvised Composition M and F is not rooted in the difference between genres. I am not interested in genre divisions, nor do I believe that there is a fundamental difference that one can pin point between established genres. I think it is primarily a matter of established history and discourse around it, and if works of art have anything to say about that, it should be aimed to disintegrate those establishments, not to reinforce given boundaries by blindly reaffirming them. The difference that interested me more was the difference between modes of conveying instructions, of establishing hierarchical control. I thought one way of doing that was by writing and the other by speaking. Now there are tendencies in music to employ the former, and in dance to employ the latter, but obviously there are countless examples where that is not the case. Also, in many cases, both of these modes are employed throughout the production of a work, and they can be distributed among different people—the composer and the conductor, the choreographer and the rehearsal director, and so on. But I decided to emphasize the

    distinction so that I could explore the indeterminacies concealed in each mode separately.


    KF: But still, it seems that generally dance would connect easier to the entirety of the situated body than most music?


    EC: Well that could be the case, but you also have to remember that there is no such thing as dance in general, as there is no such thing as the entirety of the body. Every generalization and totalization depends on efforts to make a particular, provincial channel of control absolute. The only thing that exists are tendencies, and these tendencies, like I said, belong to establishments. If you take them too seriously, you’ll end up transfixed. You become paralyzed by the weather. Having said that, I do admit that I am interested in a particular tendency of dance in comparison to music, because it seems to me that dance has always struggled and failed to establish an authoritative format for conveying and documenting movement. Although I have traced the history of dance notation, there is nothing that has attained the level of staff notation, and except for a few attempts, video recording of dance has obviously not enjoyed the immense success of sound recording in music. So it seems that for the major part, the authority of dance is rooted in the body, and direct contact of one body and another whether that entails speech or demonstration of movement. There are many ways to explore indeterminacy there, but they require taking quite a different route than when you deal with channels of control based on writing.


    KF: In relation to what you just said, could you explain why you differentiated the two Improvised Compositions in terms of gender? Do you think gender difference is more fixed than genre difference?


    EC: Oh yes. But I don’t think so in terms of physical difference. I think the difference of gender is primarily a conceptual and discursive difference. Therefore it is constituted, rather than being a given. And in that sense, it is an established difference, so there is only a difference in degree with the issue of genre divisions that I just mentioned. But the effects of gender difference do dominate and structure our lives on a deeper level, as well as across many regions and layers. I have a feeling that that is because this difference is ultimately grounded in the biological fact that only women can bear a child and reproduce. I know that a lot of this biological premise is changing quickly and I hope to see how our notions of gender difference will be radically altered when the technological conditions allow men to have babies as well. The other thing I was thinking when I related the two modes of conveying instructions to the two genders, was Marilyn Strathern’s discussion in The Gender of the Gift. In this book she analyzes the structure of many customs in Melanesia where gender difference plays a crucial role. But she maintains the perspective, derived directly from her ethnography, that the distinction of gender is not a predetermined, absolute regulation based upon bodily differences, but something that is constructed within particular ‘transactions” between people. Therefore, she claims that not only biological females have feminine identities. This resonated well with the ideas that I had about determinacy and indeterminacy not being a function of the object, but of how the object is used; never in the essence of the body but always in the relations or transactions between bodies. I think that is also what the idea of “situated knowledge” implies, that bodies are always situated in relationships.


    KF: But there is also the problem of relationships being reified, as if they were bodies.


    EC: That is precisely why it is important to remember that bodies are situated, but not completely reduced to situations. Like I said, neither an absolute neutrality nor absolute particularity…


    KF: I want to ask you a very straightforward question: do you think of yourself as a composer?


    EC: Umm, are you asking me if I think of myself as a composer?


    KF: Yes.


    EC: Well, honestly I don’t think about what I am except in occasions where I am asked to provide a biography or to describe myself to other people. It is always the others who need to identify you as something. So a straightforward answer to your straightforward question would be: of course not, because composers are only composers in relation to other people. But let me also put it differently. Because I think what was implied in your question was the fact that the role I play in my works differs greatly from what composers are usually expected to do. I don’t write scores, I give instructions, and I use other people’s works in the form of “found scores.” In the past, people have criticized me for being a “parasite.” But for me, any kind of work must be built on the platform provided by other people. The whole notion of scores being determinate, for example, was not established by a single composer overnight. So you could say that all the works that depend on that particular determinacy are necessarily parasitic to all the works that prepared that condition. The difference between their attitude and mine is this: I not only acknowledge the fact that my endeavors are parasitic, but I put that forward and I exploit that condition as the essential factor in my strategy. And moreover, this strategy is aimed at exploring and revealing aspects of power that have been concealed by the same platform that other composers build their works upon. So you could say that it takes one parasite to expose the workings of another.


    KF: I’m quite interested in that metaphor that you just used: the word “blindly.” It seems to reconnect to the issue of visibility and invisibility that we were talking earlier on. It is as if you are saying that the blindness of composers is constituted in not seeing that people see differently.


    EC: That’s a nice way to put it, Kay.


    KF: But do you think that there is anything that you or your works are blind to?


    EC: Absolutely. And I know very well that our friend You Nakai has been mildly pointing at several things that he thinks I have left out of sight. (laughter) I am very grateful for that. But at the same time, blindness is not something you can get rid of. I mean, even in physiological

    sense, the ability to see something is conditioned by blindness. You see something because you are blind to something else. In other words, seeing is always situated and therefore localized. So the issue is always on selecting what to see and to what ends, rather than trying to see everything.


    KF: Thank you for sharing your views with me, Ellen.



    Kay Festa is a composer, poet, and an independent scholar who

    makes music and performance, and writes about them as part

    of No Collective. Her most recent wrirings include: “More than

    Meets the Ears: An Account on the Shared (Ac)counts of John

    Cage and Igor Stravinsky,” which was ‘performed’ at Performatica

    2014, and scheduled to be published from TDR. She occasionally

    lives and works in New York and/or Oslo, among other places.



    The purpose of this essay is simply to consider Ellen C. Covito’s work not from the idea of what it does for its audiences, but instead from what it does for its performers. I write it because I understand what work does in the world as equally relevant to both groups. The basic idea I posit here is that Covito’s works are a form of pedagogy for performers. Her works begin with the assumption that a performer is already a skilled technician, and as a result do not seem to employ pedagogy as method that teaches artists skills. Instead, her works address training itself as problematic by challenging the access of the performer to skills they have learned.


    A true analysis of performers, however, is beyond the scope of this short essay. This is in part due to the fact that the work of performers is, in itself, too far-reaching in its subjectivity. The basis for the existence of performers takes for granted the idea that mastery is a point reached when certain people are more worth watching than others because they have trained to be so. This pedagogical idea of mastery extends beyond measurable skill, becoming instead an issue of captivation. Performer education assumes this ability to “captivate” is a nuanced matrix of powers obtainable through knowledge of techniques, instincts, experience, and sometimes (and hopefully) further augmented by apparent “natural” access, variously attributed to beauty, originality, charisma, etc. It is therefore the situation of the performer to not be able to conceive of the value of their ability, but simply to attend to its continued progress by any means considered possibly useful. These means usually take the shape of an activity called practice. Performers work toward naturalizing the various techniques of their trade, transferring non-natural actions like reading music and dancing ballet into intuitive availability. Such performers bring the act, for example, of reading music, as close to the act of seeing itself as possible. And these are the kinds of performers most interesting in Covito’s works, precisely because they have habituated the abilities that Covito challenges by, for example, rendering the ability to sight-read subject to the quality of one’s vision.


    Covito’s work intentionally confounds traditional conceptions of skill by turning to the most basic technologies of the performing human body. The physical “givens” of the performer’s bodies are just as relevant to the work as given trained abilities. In the simplest example, eyesight is as important as the ability to sight-read in the eye-chart score (Composed Improvisation E). In this kind of work, what the performer cannot do, as determined by the physical properties of their bodies, is as relevant to the production of the performance as is skill. In Composed Improvisation E, instruments drop out as various performers cease to be able to read the eye chart. The sound of the work is determined by the way in which the training of the performers is subjected to the properties of their eyesight.


    The perspective of performers typically isolates conditions from actions. This perspective assumes that because the condition of the body is always compromised, the action of performance must be one of transcendence. Covito’s work ignores this basic formula, opting instead for the idea that all abilities (and therefore possible actions) are conditions for a performance work. The performance of Covito’s work is a byproduct of the interaction between all the conditions present, and the performers are but a part of that total, interactive system. In this case, technique is but one of many “technics.” As a condition of performer bodies, it is taken at face value in Covito’s work, and manipulated through its physicality, regardless as to whether it be an acquired capacity (playing an instrument, reading music, dancing a jig) or one “inherent” to the body of the performer (eyesight, height, etc). As such, technic also encapsulates the conditions of the objects put into use, which are also manipulated via their physicalities. Giant cloths inscribed with music notation are folded up into their most compact sizes, drumsticks are retrofitted with magnets so they attach to the metal objects played, pages of a score are glued together. In this way, conditions continually manifest as the interactions between the various components (both human and object) brought together within Covito’s work. In the case of the giant “floor score” of Composed Improvisation M, for example, the conditions of the score determine the conditions of how the performers stand and move in the space, which determines the conditions under which the score is folded, which determines the conditions under which the performers read the score, which determines the conditions of their playing of the instruments. In this domino effect of conditions, the composer has bracketed out the pathos of performative intent, opting instead for physical conditions. But for the performer, whose only way to relate to everything-as-conditions is to “do the best I can,” the experience is marked deeply by a kind of pathos of proverbially “captaining a sinking ship.” In this case, mastery is not a means toward transcendence, but instead a means by which physical compromise is navigated. And in this way, Covito’s work unhinges what is and has always been the greatest burden of the performer: That of being worth watching. What is seen in Covito’s work is not the worthiness of the performer but conscious contention with physical conditions in which both the consciousness and the conditions are equally powerful.


    I have long thought that the master improviser should understand all works as flops, and must therefore consider every work as one that must be saved, not through the undoing of the flop, but through the intelligent navigation of malfunction (in which the assumption is that malfunction is always a driving creative force in the state of improvisation). Covito’s works operate like a computer bug; they crash the performer’s known methods for information transference. And in this situation, the audience is left to observe the breakdown of a system and the instant coping methods of the conscious performers within that system as they seek to navigate the disabled vehicle of the piece toward a safe landing.


    In most cases of improvisational works, the basis for malfunction is simply that the performers don’t know exactly what is supposed to be done. Yet, in the case of Covito, the malfunction is more likely a form of sabotage designed into the work itself, and directed precisely at the most primitive of the performer’s technic. In many cases, the performer him or herself unintentionally drives this sabotage. The score is precise and determinate, for example, in Composed Improvisation G, but as the pages of the score are glued together, it becomes compromised when the performer separates the pages in order to read them.


    To perceive composition, or “intelligent design,” one must perceive something that has the quality of reliability. And this perception of composition is as necessary to performers within works as it is to the audiences who view from the outside. Covito’s works are designed to be clear, complete, and vastly unreliable. Her works are specifically designed to be subject to various forces of de-composition often caused by their very performance. Facing this scenario, performers turn to themselves as the only reliable compositional factor (by perceiving themselves as the subject of their own limited control), thus following the traditional mode of improvisation. Yet they find in themselves their own foil. In the case of Covito, to be a good follower of instructions is to set one’s own booby-trap. The most common response of performers in such cases is to thus escalate their own reliability and seek to provide the consistency that the composition itself abandons as it is being fulfilled. And there the construction of the work emerges, between the decomposition of the conditions and the steadfastness of the performers, who, in various states of compromise, carry her works to their ends to the best of their abilities.


    In the simplest terms, what performers experience in Covito’s work is that to be good at something is not good enough. And so, the question becomes: What value is that information to the performer? Through all her hindrances and methods of handicapping, Covito exposes to the performer the experience of being a component in a system designed to expose its own operations through malfunction. As such, the performer can experience him or herself as (1) a component and (2) necessarily malfunctioning. Though I doubt Covito would agree with this statement (she would not consider her own works as “malfunctioning” at all—they are instead operating exactly as planned) I maintain that the pedagogical experience of performers in the work begins with the issue of malfunction, or the sensation that the performance of the work gets in the way of the performance of the work. Never able to complete the task without anomalies, or only saddled with task-as-anomalyproducer, successful performers weather Covito’s work more than aptly perform it.



    Lindsey Drury is a dance artist, body studies scholar, and curator from

    Brooklyn, New York. Recent collaborative projects with No Collective

    include curating and producing Ellen C. Covito’s Percussions/Repercussions

    at The Woods Cooperative for their jointly-run performance series

    {The Room}, and the large-scale work Vesna’s Fall.




    As she herself has proclaimed at least on one occasion, Ellen C. Covito is not the first composer to explore the potentials of the seemingly oxymoronic term “composed improvisation.” John Cage reconciled with his long hatred towards improvisation late in his life, engaging in a series of compositions to which he bore the very word that had troubled him throughout his career. These pieces, the composer explained, circumvented the general danger that lurks in improvisation—that of falling back to one’s boring habits and subjective tastes—by taking recourse to either of the following two tactics: (A) the use of indeterminate instruments in which the causal relationship between their manipulation and the resultant sound is unknown and thus uncontrollable; (B) the use of “variable” timebrackets which are flexible in terms of their beginnings and endings, as well as the exact timing for the occurrence of sounds inside them. The former approach created pieces such as Child of Tree (Improvisation 1) (1975) or Inlets (Improvisation 2) (1977) in the mid-1970s; the latter resulted in a series of works collectively entitled c Composed Improvisation (1987-90) towards the end of the following decade (and all the so-called “number pieces” actually, though these were never referred to as ‘improvisation’ per se).



    Nevertheless, as most things concerning Cage, this resolution with improvisation had an unacknowledged precedent. Already in the late 1950s, Christian Wolff, upon facing a shortage of rehearsal time before a concert, began introducing a certain degree of freedom into the system of time brackets he had previously learned from Cage: “What we did was a kind of improvisation—the score dealt only with spaces of time and groups of notes from which we could select.” (*1) In the program note for Duo for Pianists I (1957), the first piece composed in this manner, Wolff described his approach with a peculiar wording: “an experiment in ‘composed’ improvisation.” (*2) In the subsequent years, Wolff would pursue the logical extension of these initial experiments, developing an intricate system which employed sonic cues (mis)heard by performers during performance. Thus, the brackets are not just “variable,” but they remain indeterminate until the actual performance. One prime motive to move in this direction, Wolff explained, was the fact that David Tudor always prepared determinate scores from any given indeterminate graphic score, successfully relinquishing all indeterminacy by the time he performed it on the piano. Around the same time, however, Tudor had begun to tackle the same problem on his own: implementing electronic amplification to his piano to attain a state where “you could only hope to influence” (*3) the instrument. In both cases, then, indeterminacy is obtained in the phase of performance through the intervention of an external element that cannot be fully composed beforehand. For Wolff, it is the fluctuating sonic cue that serves as a real-time score; for Tudor, it is the indeterminate instrument.



    Accessed via these historical precedents, the distinctness of Covito’s Composed Improvisations becomes readily apparent: while preserving the determinacy of both the instrument and the score, it is the access to them that her works render indeterminate. Thus, for instance, in Composed Improvisation L (2010), the necessity of light to see the score, as well as the instrument, is subverted through the use of a glow-in-the-dark score; Composed Improvisation G (2011) distorts the physical articulation of the score pages, whereas in Composed Improvisation T (2009), the generally presumed singularity and staticity of a score is nullified; Composed Improvisation E and M (2010) both play around with the scale of the score and of the individual notes respectively, putting into question the appropriate distance for perceiving a score (an important precursor piece which implements the same principle to instruments, is Toshi Ichiyanagi’s Distance (1961)); Composed Improvisation J (2009) extends the same problematics to time, by exploiting the lack of temporal buffer generally presupposed in the act of sight-reading.



    Grasped from a slightly different angle, Covito’s indeterminacy can be seen as being located within the physical conditions that govern the visual intelligibility of music notation (and instrument, albeit to a lesser extent). Curiously, this paraphrase brings Covito’s Composed Improvisations closer back to Cage—not to his later improvisational pieces, but to his much earlier pursuit of graphic scores beginning in the 1950s. For the basis of Cagean graphic notation was a simple, yet radical, recognition: as a graphic composed of points and lines, any notation is indeterminate to begin with (and herein lies the crucial difference between his and other composer’s—such as Morton Feldman’s—approach). Determinacy, in other words, is never an attribute of a given score; it is rather a correlative of the convention that governs the translation from the graphics on paper to the notes to be performed (though Cage himself too often confounded this fundamental insight with a facile fetishization of the graphic; and others, of course, followed suit.) Cage could thus refute with a simple argument the blind belief in an singular relationship between the score and sound, shared among so many of his contemporary composers: “If it is on paper, then it is graphic.” (*4) In other words, a (graphic) score for Cage could be thought of as a giant indeterminate machinery (which includes the performer) that obfuscates any determinate causality between its input and output. But unfortunately, this indeterminacy exists only for the composer. As the performer inside the machinery, Tudor spent days and weeks making determinate performance scores out of Cage’s indeterminate graphic notations. The composer’s solution succeeds in eradicating the score’s predetermined control over the performance, but it does so only by relegating the same control to his performers.



    Rather than establishing a definite answer, Cagean indeterminacy remains therefore merely a way to procrastinate the problem of control, leaving it to be solved within the time of performance. Tudor and Wolff ’s struggles to overcome this issue have already been depicted. Covito’s solution, however, takes place right in between that of Cage and Tudor/ Wolff. On the one hand, she preserves Cage’s idea of rendering the very reading of the score (the composition) indeterminate, but on the other, she enacts this very indeterminacy in the real-time of performance (as improvisation). What differentiates her strategy from countless other employments of graphic notation is the shift from readability to visibility that she applies to the Cagean model when transferring it to the phase of performance. The score is present at the performance, but no longer functions as a determinate controlling device over the sounds to be produced—and not because what is written remains ambiguous and merely suggestive (an elusiveness which tends to be bartered quickly with a fetish for the graphic), but be cause the physical conditions which allow a score to be seen in the first place is altered. The question thus becomes focused on how things are read, and not what. Hence, the notion of a “found score”—the score need not be invented; it merely suffices for it to be found.



    As for the two part Improvised Composition F+M (2011), Covito’s focus seems to have switched from the performer and the act of reading a score to the composer and the act of writing a score. It is still possible to observe—rather tenaciously—a resonance with Cage’s 0’00” (4’33” No.2) (1961) where the composer, at the premiere, chose as the instructed “disciplined action,” the writing of instructions for the same piece with contact microphones attached to his pen. Thus, the act of composition is itself staged as performance. But the differences are also obvious, for Covito preserves the basic distinction between the functional roles of the composer and performer: the former writes what the latter renders into music. Both what is written, and the process of its rendition, remain determinate. The only intervention here is again on the level of accessibility. The singular and predetermined access to performers is canceled by the pluralization of the composers/choreographers who either rush to provide their scores to the performers who wait on a first come, first served basis in M, or must rely on a unconfirmed pairing with a given dancer in F.



    Maybe there is something that Covito’s Improvised Compositions and Composed Improvisations both leave out of sight. The performer’s reading process of the score is treated as a given when the writing process is put into question, and the process of obtaining scores (whether composing or transcribing them) never becomes part of the performance when the focus is on the visibility of the ready-made notation. Improvised Composition thus assumes that instrumentalists can always sight-read; Composed Improvisation, that scores are always found. For this reason, it is interesting to notice that the most recent of her compositions, Improvised Composition S and R (2012) seem to be attempts to deal with this issue. The former by an uncanny setting of equality between the process of writing a score and performing it (in addition to the usual removal of accessibility); the latter by demanding a radical annulment of the very procedure required to write the score (which is none other than the process of rehearsal) in order to perform it. Sure, the results might be less visibly entertaining in these works, but more seems to be kept in sight. (And that leaves us pondering about the only remaining level in Covito’s works that never seems to be questioned nor relativized: her linguistic instructions.)




    *1 Christian Wolff, “Taking Chances: From a Conversation with Victor Schonfield,” in Cues: Writings & Conversations. Cologne: Musik-

    Texte, 1998, 72.

    *2 Wolff, “Program Note for Duo for Pianists I (1957),” in Cues, 488.

    *3 Quoted in Ray Wilding-White, “David Tudor: 10 Selected Realizations of Graphic Scores and Related Performance (1973),” Los Angeles: David Tudor Papers, Getty Research Institute, Box 19, Folder 2.

    *4 John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1961, 177.



    You Nakai makes music and other things as part of No Collective,

    among other things. His account on Ellen C. Covito’s music and the

    works of No Collective can be read in “The Music of Ellen C. Covito: An

    Interview with You Nakai by Elizabeth Hoffman,” Perspectives of New

    Music (Winter, 2013).



    Why is it that in music a line is drawn between “composers” and “performers” in the production process? In the case of dance, for instance, it seems that the maneuvering of one’s own body constitutes an equal, if not a more basic, pre-condition for choreography in relation to the imposition of control over other people’s bodies (a “pure” choreographer is almost an impossibility). Being a dancer, in this way, precedes being a choreographer. In comparison, however, it is as if all composers start off by losing their own bodies, turning themselves into ghostly figures who lack the hands and feet required to enact a performance. Or would it be more accurate to say that the ephemeral nature of music necessitates the planner to double as the documentarian of the executed plan? The existence of a musical score certainly contributes to the reproducibility of a given music. But does the coupling of score and performance permeate and legitimate the entire genre of music? These are pertinent questions, given that the existence of a ‘composer’ could be seen as nothing more than a white elephant which only preserves the antiquated production model wherein a pre-conceived idea becomes realized through particular channels of materialization.


    For instance, Fluxus, whose works simplified many of John Cage’s methods and short-circuited them into brief, comedy-like performances, may have seemed to advocate an anti-music music. But what they actually practiced was a deductive musical fundamentalism. In the Fluxus movement, the relationship between a score and a performance was regarded as a type of axiom that could not be validated by any other system beyond its own existence. Once a certain time frame is constituted through the relationship between the score and performance (instruction and execution), this becomes established as music. The particular material could be anything—water drops, telephone calls, or sneezes. The content is arbitrary. Even the question of what kind of sound is produced as the result of executing the score is not of prime importance. In other words, the process of expanding the material of music can only be accomplished formally. In order to render even an abstract notion such as “contingency” into something that can be manipulated (or an object of cognition), one needs first and foremost to enclose it inside a frame. There is no way to deviate from the frame without setting a frame in the first place. That is why Fluxus chose to explicitly show the rules of the game being played, or to impose a minimum limitation that would confine the range of possible happenstances within the frame of cognition.


    Perhaps it might sound far-fetched, but this attitude of Fluxus resembles the procedures taken by the “Supports/Surfaces” group of artists in France, who reduced painting to the relationship between the “support” and the “surface.” What makes painting a painting, they claimed, was neither the material used, such as paint or canvas, nor the motifs or techniques of how and what to paint. The condition of painting is instead solely grounded on the relationship between the support and the surface. “Surface” here addresses a field with a certain volume and an equally distributed density upon which the painter can paint, inscribe, distain, damage, or project. “Support” is the infrastructure that establishes surfaces. As long as this relationship is maintained, anything could become painting. The main issue was not in any positive features that made a thing appear as painting. It was rather in the negative postulate of not having any functionality in comparison to other artifices that it may resemble in appearance, that made something a painting. The creation of such peculiar objects was the program set by the Support/Surface group (to be clear, the specificity they aimed for was not something that is “neither painting nor sculpture” as Donald Judd envisioned, but rather the extraction of the idiosyncracies contained as potentials within the very production process of painting).


    The support that enables the surface; the score that enables the performance. But compared to the physical connection between a support and a surface, the temporal difference (issue of precedence) between a score and a performance entails no necessary causal relationship. Perhaps a more adequate comparison in music to the relationship between surface and support is that between the instrument and performance. And indeed, there has been attempts to create music solely through the interaction between several instruments, without the intervention of neither composer nor performer (even when a performer is involved, it is not as the manipulator of the instrument, but rather as another instrument). But contrary to these endeavors, one may ask what kind of problem can be dealt if one were to persistently hold on to the act of composition that cannot be incorporated or reduced to the act of performance. Then one finds an ‘opening,’ so to speak, for modifying or expanding causal relationships on the level of “instructions” that cannot be reduced to the physical specificity of any medium. The battle over initiatives and concessions that emerges from such openings is what characterizes the actualities of the production process when the level of “composition” is added (or preserved). These issues pertinent to the coupling between scores and their performances do not belong to a particular genre, but rather foregrounds a general problem of hierarchical relationships within a society.


    In the works of Fluxus, the assigned, arbitrary content never actually undermined the relational equation regulating the instruction and its execution—the rules regulating the rules given to the performer were never questioned. The expansion of materials did not invite in a state of exception where established principles collapsed; it only demonstrated that certain principles contained more flexible multiplicity, which in return served to fortify it (“you cannot deal with X with your format, but with mine, you can articulate widely different materials and modify them in an equal manner”—the range of available materials justifies the universality of a given form). Moreover, the discrepancies between the instruction and its execution were almost never considered within the text of instruction (even though the notion of ‘noise’ was understood as addressing such discrepancy rather than any concrete feature of sound). In other words, the view that the instruction-execution (score-performance) relationship is institutional and arbitrary, and therefore a hierarchy that can be restructured, is absent here. And this is precisely the problem that Ellen C. Covito deals with.


    For instance, Improvised Composition M takes as its principal material the very relationship between the composer and the performer. During the performance, the same number of composers as there are performers (in the Tokyo concert which the author attended, there were three of each) compose in real time, handing fragments of the written score to one or more performers who plays them as they come. The order in which a composer presents the score is not determined in advance, and the performed music thus changes according to what becomes composed when. Consequently, the composer who writes the most number of scores in the shortest amount of time gets to be performed the most, precipitating a racing conflict between composers over time. Here, time is treated as space, or more accurately, as a territory to be occupied or seized. Though the nature of the performance is comical, the figure of the composer portrayed in this piece resembles the true founder of civil society who Rousseau once criticized as an impostor: “The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him…” (Discourse on Inequality) Covito re-enacts a temporal version of this pre-contractual inequality (the genesis of ownership) that Rousseau portrayed in order to claim the necessity of social contract. And she does so by exploiting the textual form of ‘instruction,’ which necessarily accompanies contractual relationships.


    The act of composition is related to the issue of how an authority emerges. For instance, how does one distinguish between a description and an instruction? Whereas “description” addresses something that has already happened, “instruction” is a speculation into the future that attempts to create something that has not yet taken place. The validity of a “description” is generally measured by its correspondence with events. “Instructions,” on the other hand, are defined by their incompleteness, the absence of any correspondence with events (realization). Then what validates an instruction? (This question is actually homologous to the one set by Greenbergian “pure” paintings, which wondered whether there was any characteristic immanent to a work itself that defines it as an art). Ultimately speaking, there is nothing that validates it. The validity of a instruction is merely shown by a collateral: an authoritative figure behind the presented text. The question thus becomes, “who gave out this instruction?”—to which the act of composition answers by composing this assumed authority. Thus, the act of composition ultimately attempts to compose the composer.


    Once this authority is successfully composed, the speculation in the name of ‘instruction’ can be validated, and it becomes possible to frame an absent event through the presence of the composer figure. Under this validation, the instruction which pre-embraces events to come, assumes the seal of neutrality (in relation to the said events). However, we should note that this established neutrality of the score actually functions as an accomplice to the widely-shared fetish for the singularity of performance and performed presence. In particular, the genre of music has long enjoyed the notorious collateral (pretext) of the “ephemerality of sound” to claim its singular relevance to the blind faith towards the absolute irreducibility of the event taking place in the here and now. But we do not need to cite Jacques Derrida to see how such metaphysical ideology of presence does not in any way contradict the neutrality of the authoritative text (the singularity of ‘speculation’) which frames the event in advance—it merely complements it.


    There is, however, another route of mediation that sustains the coupling between instructions and executions, due to the fact that the

    score must be read in order to be executed. The process of reading, which inevitably introduces the material particularities of each reader’s bodies,underlies the conceptual universality of the composed authority. The introduction and proliferation of these disparate bodies cannot be contained nor controlled by the composed authority of the composer, or the authority of composition. This is why composers such as Stravinsky had to maintain that the ultimate truth of music lay in the score itself, and that the particular performances were a necessary evil to be resorted to in the absence of more sophisticated methodologies. We know that these methodologies were dreamed into the emerging media technologies of the gramophone record, for instance, that seemed to realize a performance which bypassed the incomplete human performer, and we also know how these dreams failed.


    Covito’s “Composed Improvisation” series exposes and is grounded on the simple fact that the individual phase of ‘reading’ an instruction cannot, in principle, be reduced to the instruction itself. In comparison, the “Improvised Composition” series foregrounds the individual phases of ‘writing’ (or ‘enunciating’) an instruction as a conflict between composers over territories of time. Here again, what is denounced is the complicit relationship between the composed authority of the instruction and the ideology of presence enwrapping its execution (performance). In other words, beneath a seemingly established “contract”—which serves as the conceptual link between the authority of the composer, the neutrality of the score, and the singularity of the performance—lies the acts of ‘writing’ and ‘reading’ the contract. The inequality inherent in these physical acts that must precede and follow the contract pertains strictly to the domain of performance, for the contract by definition cannot account for it. It is this inequality that serves as an ‘opening’ for Covito to reconfigure established contracts and pre-composed causalities.



    Shinichi Takashima is an artist who has been creating performance

    and video works since 2003. He is interested in the feeling

    of floating (sensation of zero-gravity) which can be gained

    by treating his own body both as material and function.

    Major solo exhibitions include “One foot on the moon” (05),

    “These fallish things” (08) (Gallery Objective Correlative,

    Tokyo); major group exhibitions include “Body as

    Interimage” (Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media, 2009), “Weather

    and Lifetime: Installation of a Crick, Transportation by Paralysis”

    (self-curated event, Asahi Art Square, Tokyo, 2010), &

    “14 Evenings” (The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 2012).


ellen c. covito