Aleatoric Affinities: John Cage and Maria Elena González’s Skowhegan Birch # 1

by Marshall N. Price

 Maria Elena Gonzaléz,  Skowhegan Birch #1 , 2012, still from single channel video. The left screen shows the player piano roll made from the pattern on Birchbark found at Skowhegan. The right shows Randolph Herr playing the composition.

Maria Elena Gonzaléz, Skowhegan Birch #1, 2012, still from single channel video.
The left screen shows the player piano roll made from the pattern on Birchbark found at Skowhegan. The right shows Randolph Herr playing the composition.

When John Cage declared that “art is the imitation of nature in her manner of operation,” he was not only drawing on ideas articulated by his predecessors in the field of metaphysics such as the Indian philosopher and art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy and the medieval theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas, but he was also attempting to illuminate an aspect of the process in which he ostensibly removed his own hand from the creative process, allowing chance to determine any variety of one’s artistic choices. Cage believed that anthropocentric art and music was trivial, and that beyond individuals, nature herself had an intrinsic expressivity found in elements such as trees, rocks, and water. It is with these ideas in mind that we can reflect on Maria Elena González’s Skowhegan Birch #1, 2012, a multi-disciplinary work in which birch bark forms the blueprint for player piano rolls, and ultimately the music produced by the rolls themselves.

The genesis of Skowhegan Birch #1 came from the Cagean notion of allowing artistic choices to manifest by simply deciding which questions to ask, and was born in a moment of synesthetic curiosity in which González wondered how we might better understand the information held within the architecture of the natural world. Could this biological matrix, built on the collective history of evolution and nature’s forward march of time, be translated into a musical vocabulary, and if so, what would that music sound like? In many ways, Skowhegan Birch #1 unlocks this history and gives a sonorous voice and an audible consciousness to the rural Maine landscape. González has long been engaged with memory and architecture in her work, and here instead of creating a socio- political iconographic program used by the artist in the form of her recognizable maps, floor plans, carpets, and sculptural towers, she has instead relinquished dominion of her hand and literally allowed the trees to speak for themselves. While the piece remains a type of mimesis, however unconventional in this format, it shares with much of Cage’s works a clearly established conceptual framework.

Skowhegan Birch #1 is aleatory and its sounds vacillate between brief moments of silence and long, cascading polytonal phrases. But cacophony and dissonance become paradoxical concepts here as a chorus of voices, held for centuries within the trees of the forest, are freed from their confines and finally speak out all at once. Liberated from the constraints of conventional elements of music such as time and key signatures, Skowhegan Birch #1 is a symphony of sensorial effluence. The musical result is an uninhibited arrangement of collected sounds that sing with immediacy and abandon. Cage believed that music could sober and quiet the mind, making it susceptible to divine influences and thus open to the fluency of things that come through our senses. Art, he believed, could help us achieve this state. In the end, it is easy to imagine that, having listened to Skowhegan Birch #1, John Cage would have likely smiled impishly and delighted in the sound of nature’s emancipated music.

Skowhegan Birch #1, 2012, by Maria Elena González (Skowhegan Governor and F ’05) is included in the exhibition Against the Grain: Wood in Contemporary Art, Craft, and Design, currently on view at the Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC (through January 27, 2013) and traveling to the Museum of Arts and Design, New York (March–June 2013).

Marshall N. Price is the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Academy Museum, New York. His current exhibition, John Cage: The Sight of Silence, is on view through January 13, 2013.