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To Express an Idea

Conceptual artists put on a unique performance

By Jack Olson
August 18th, 2016

Art begins with and starts with a discussion. It’s an idea that can be pursued in an artistic form. It is wonder. It is curiosity.

Andria Marcussen and Ted Kelchner begin their artistic endeavors this way.

“As conceptual artists, in order to articulate that idea, because it’s concept based, we have to use the medium that expresses, or allows us to accomplish, our idea,” Marcussen said.

Marcussen and Kelchner created a work called the “Noise Opera,” performed at the Prichard Art Gallery Aug. 6. The performance was indicative of the unique art exhibited by the Prichard Art Gallery every month.

The opera used live performance, unrecognizable sounds and century old text to tell the age-old story of the oppressed becoming the oppressor.

Kelchner said the idea began with a discussion about noise musicians, whom he and Marcussen had interacted with at shows. 

The discussions developed into a performance involving eight people, a score without any instrument parts or notes at all.

“We realized about half the people, if we’re lucky, would be able to read music. So notation is out,” Marcussen said. “And we use a lot of non-instruments, you know. You can’t write for an egg slicer.”

Kelchner said it’s called an open form score, something avant-garde musicians have been using since the 1950s. Open form scores allow for interpretation on the part of performer and the conductor, which he said means no two performances or performers will ever be alike. Most of the score’s direction is given through abstract shapes and brief instruction like “as a clock.”

“Telling them what to do limits their potential,” Kelchner said. “We’re trying to stimulate their creativity.”

Coming from a background of visual art, he said this project was completely different for them.

“We did a bit more writing than we initially anticipated, which is fine,” Kelchner said, “then through working with the musicians we realized we’d have to do a lot more directing than we anticipated.”

He said there is a balance when directing or making art of any kind. Artists must give enough information, while leaving enough content to interpretation.

Marcussen said the responsibility of the artist is to tempt thought. She said they will create a narrative using an idea, but the point is not to communicate that exact same idea to the viewer.

“You want the viewer to find what they need,” Marcussen said. “Don’t over-inform them or dictate what they should be thinking.”

Marcussen said the story of the opera is a classic story like King Arthur or a Greek tragedy. Kelchner said the role of the protagonist is a character called ‘the oppressed’.

“What usually happens,” Kelchner said “is that the oppressed, through rebellion and overthrowing the controllers, has to bring order, and in doing so, they adopt the conventions of the oppressors and they themselves become the oppressors.”

The antagonist character is the conductor, who will not appear on stage, but will be represented by a video projection of gloved hands miming direction to the minstrels whom he controls. Marcussen said he represents the power structure of the bodiless controller. The bodiless controller has no physical presence but controls the oppressed. She said all through history there has been a bodiless controller, like a king.

“The king controls your peasant ass, but you’ve never seen the king in your life,” Marcussen said.

Kelchner said the intent is to publish it so other ensembles can perform the piece. He said the challenges they face are the same challenges other groups will face.

Marcussen said they’ve spent hundreds of hours writing and rewriting the score. She said the whole process has been an experiment in itself to see if they can even pull it off. As conceptual artists, she said they are always working in different ways because the ideas fuel the art.

“Really it’s a conceptual project and it’s our interest in trying, like any artist in any medium, to make the intangible tangible,” Marcussen said.