New York’s Open Space Magazine has recently published a grand, two-part issue to remember and celebrate the life and work of Melbourne-born poet and multi-media collaborator Chris Mann, who died in New York in 2018.
To consider Mann unique is an under-statement, as it is difficult to restrict him, over his 69 years, to a single category of creative output, and his contribution to the arts remains a continuing legacy.
Born 1949 in Melbourne, Mann was a highly innovative poet, performer and multi-media exponent. His special field was compositional linguistics, where his unique vocalisations welded free-form recitative with sound poetry, generating numerous hybrid forms. He employed free association and improvisation, but also strict scoring, and explored multiple connections with various art-forms and their exponents. Even his more rapid, machine-gun vocalisations are often too quick to catch on the run, but leave a strangely subliminal, slightly intoxicating resonance.
Over a highly productive and varied creative life, Mann collaborated with many video and visual artists, electronic engineers, composers, musicians, theorists and educators. He also wrote a number of books, some of which have become rare limited editions.
In his youth, Mann was immersed in the diverse sound world of his migrant parents, Ruth and Peter Mann, who presided over the pioneering Score recording label, and ran Melbourne’s well-known Discurio record store. In the late 1960s, Chris studied Chinese, linguistics and political sciences at the University of Melbourne and a keen interest in language, structural systems, and philosophy permeates his work.
In the early 1970s, Mann often read/performed at Melbourne’s La Mama theatre, which is where I first saw him, and was immediately struck by his pizzazz, daring and originality.
Mann also founded Melbourne’s New Music Centre in 1972, then taught at the State College of Victoria before leaving to work on research projects involving information theory. In the early to late ‘70s, he began to make contact with avant-garde composers world-wide, and a collection of Mann’s texts, Words & Classes, was published by Outback Press in 1977. Also in the 1970s, Mann began early collaborations with Australian composers like Peter Mumme, Warren Burt, Syd Clayton and others.
In 1975 Mann was Lecturer in Music at The Institute of Catholic Education at the State College of Victoria and by 1977 Co-ordinator of Aboriginal Studies there. Later, he travelled to Paris and Italy to investigate his ideas, and also study the history of grammar. In 1980 Mann attended La Trobe University, studying for a Bachelor of Education, then briefly became artist in residence at two Melbourne primary schools.
The early 1980s saw Mann begin to collaborate with computer artists, allowing him to modify spoken texts in various ways. It was around this time that more established Australian composers, such as Felix Werder, began to notice his work. Then well known American avant-garde composer John Cage set two of Mann’s texts, and one – for voice and violin – was performed in Los Angeles in 1987.
Beginning in the 1980s, Mann’s larrikin activities in compositional linguistics earned him an increasing overseas reputation, and he received commissions from Radio France and the Paris Autumn Festival. An additional collaboration with Warren Burt was also performed at the Pompidou Centre, France.
Mann then co-devised a multimedia collaboration – commissioned by the Australian Bicentennial Authority – with theatrical director Arpad Milhaly; and another Bicentennial radio piece for the ABC, with Warren Burt, Les Gilbert, Kris Hemensley and (the late) Walter Billeter. A Mann text/sound piece was presented at the 1987 Documenta in Kassel, Germany, and in 1988 he was one of the 22 composers included in my book, 22 Contemporary Australian Composers, mostly collaboratively co-written with those included and published by NMA Publications under the general aegis of composer Rainer Linz. At this time, Mann divided his time between Launching Place on the rural outskirts of Melbourne, and suburban St Kilda.
Later in the 1980s, however, Mann moved to New York, where he toured and performed widely. He obtained ‘a green card’, allowing him to legally live and work in the U.S., teaching media studies at the private New School advanced learning institute in New York. He also connected with the many-branched creative networks in that city and beyond, taking part in numerous creative projects. Sadly, Chris Mann died of cancer-related illness in September 2018, and is now survived by his wife and two children.
FOR CHRIS MANN, The Open Space Magazine #22. This issue celebrates Mann in a very generous way, with the issue consisting of two separate sections, which you can find inter-linked on the Open Space website: https://the-open-space.org/
Firstly, a very comprehensive and free Webpage section – curated by Elaine R. Barkin and produced by Jon Forshee – is now available here: https://the-open-space.org/web-magazine/. (Simply click on the above link, scrolling down to access a rich diversity of multi-media pieces.) Note also, that many pieces have multiple links to other sites on the internet.
A sense of inter-linked complexity, so vital to Mann’s output, is strikingly rendered in a visual image by Australian multi-media and visual artist Ruark Lewis.
The first Webpage piece is titled Intrada: Notes to Intrada and Free Speech, (2007) by New York-born composer and musician Noah Creshevsky, who describes his work as ‘hyper-realistic” and fusing music and noise in interesting ways, while integrating electronics with multi-sourced acoustic sounds. The piece is a sound file, with instrumental music for strings (by Creshevsky) sprinkled with staccato, semi-electronically-treated vocals by Chris Mann, including half phrases and word play, much non-lexical and non-grammatical vocalisation (or proto-language baby-talk or ‘mouthings’) plus rapid-fire, semi-linked word strings, all at various speed, pitch and rhythmic trajectory. (Perhaps there is also a sympathetic nod in this mix to dyslexics the world over, who find difficulty breaking words down into component phonemes, and may also use disruptive speech to deal with feelings of frustration.)
The term intrada means an introductory piece of music or prelude, and it morphs into piece 2, Free Speech, a YouTube video dated 2006, which starts with a visually complex succession of letters and numbers, all in semi-architectural arrays and bold patterns. There are numerous, changing ‘word squares’, or animated concrete poems, some using the words F,R,E,E, S,P,E,E,C,H. And within their squares, the letters gradually shift and re-combine to form more words. We then see a variety of images, such as floating maps, as text soon becomes texture, then interposed quick cuts to a mobile water-like surface. Also floating in are several naturalistic portraits of people – perhaps giving lectures, Tedx talks, etc – then a chessboard and several abstract patterns, before more word blocks return.
As in so many pieces in this Mann edition, visual complexity is underscored by a highly rhythmic soundtrack, consisting of a sampled word-salad mix of Chris Mann vocals, his signature tongue-twists and cut-up phases, often with electronic or treated instrumental sounds. There are occasional breaks of silence, before Mann delivers further explosions of plosives, more subliminal asides, plus phatic phrasings; quick-fire, expressive verbal gestures, interspersed with bits of semi-arpeggio-like broken blasts of brass, graduating into more sustained and haunting atmospheric musical phases. At times Mann’s vocals resemble ‘out there’ scat singing, all joining the playful dots in liquid-meanderings and plink-plunking arpeggios.
Typically, here as elsewhere, Mann’s non-lexical vocables are laced with jumbled and lively self-interjections, exclamations and strung-together nonsense syllables, always rendered in Mann’s distinctive Australian accent.
As in other of his works, Mann goes further into a form of verbal beat-boxing or vocal percussion, plus erratic staccato syllabic-bursts punctuated by silence or indrawn breath. One purpose of all of this – not only in this particular work, but in many others offered here – is perhaps to reflect upon our modern media environment – always now and all around us, on the internet, TV, radio, on flickering screens in shopping malls and busy city streets – and increasingly filling our lives with random neural connections of consumption and overlay. In this cacaphonic mix of words, sounds and images, Free Speech, politically speaking, perhaps becomes even more vital than ever!
Here I have described at length some of Mann’s vocal techniques, many of which also re-surface, with many a variation, in pieces which follow; such as Position as Argument by Mann (vocals) and David Dunn (violin) and dated 1982.
Dunn is an American innovative composer and sound engineer, and Position as Argument is for “solo speaking voice, solo violin and two channel tape…” (in which the) “speaking voice articulates a written text, with the (speaker’s) vocal phrasing influenced by interaction between tape and violin…”
This three-part piece consists, firstly, of a pdf written score, taking the form of a diagrammatic flow chart consisting of dots linked in a large web pattern, with each representing an instruction for the violinist, such as ‘fast bow sweep’, ‘downward glissando’, etc. An extensive list of words and phrases follows, to be articulated by Mann’s solo speaking voice, matched expressively to the instrumental parts. For example, Mann’s phrasings include ‘now now’, ‘doe ray me’, ‘she sells sea shells’, ‘what’s the diff’, ‘norf and souf’, ‘what a bloody mouf’, and many more… (Note here also Mann’s signature jokiness.) All of this is followed by a full sound recording of Position as Argument. And as we listen, we can glance back and forth to both the score and to Mann’s extensive word list. This piece highlights Mann’s recurring preoccupation with the web-like nature of language, taken in the broadest sense, whether musical or aural.
The next piece is titled goes a little something like this, a 2009 video by American sound-artist and poet George Quasha, who works across various media. It records a live performance (with artistic director Juan Puntes) by Mann at the WhiteBox art space in NY, and shows the latter articulating a monologue in his usual verbal style, while using quick hand gestures and very expressive body language: scratching his head, pausing, thinking, delivering witty asides in close-up, then staying on message even when people enter the space behind him. (A picture from that performance is at the top of my review.)
There is also mention of another Quasha video on page 86 of the Magazine section of this Chris Mann tribute issue, where a mono pic shows Mann performing live at Roulette (presumably a NY live-performance, take-a-spin venue). This video has a nicely querulous digital-age title, The Intro, or, Don’t you have a phone?
Next, we have For Chris Mann, a 1985 concrete poem by John Cage printed in reverse-out white on black, with some letters spelling out Mann’s name while characterising the latter’s stage shtick as (quote) “a fast mix of vulgarity and elegance”. It is followed by Miss Crann and the Sense for Making Machines (2018) a SoundCloud recording by Philip Blackburn, a UK-born but now US citizen, composer and sound artist. This tribute uses a text based on a 2002 interview with Mann made for Minnesota Public Radio’s ‘Music Maverik’ series. Interestingly, it also contains brief passages of naturalistic speech from Mann, though often sloughing back into a double-trouble-bubble of simultaneous overdubs. It also has a jokey philosophical edge, as Mann discusses the history of avant-garde music, sound poetry, its multiple borders and beyond, all punctuated by lingering and elongated electronic sounds.
Next is Language Willing, a video piece by multi-media exponent Gary Hill, in which two human hands turn a pair of decorative dinner plates around, the right clockwise, the left counter-clockwise, just like an adjacent pair of gears. As the plates turn, they trigger electronically treated snippets of Mann’s vocals. (I read somewhere that Mann developed a liking for the Greek philosopher Plato, and I wonder if there is isn’t also an outrageous pun in all of this!)
There follows three more collaborative pieces by American composers/artists, including an unattributed photo collage of Mann performing, titled The Lab 2016. It is followed by Ta, by New-Zealand-born American composer Annea Lockwood, who teams with the late Ruth Anderson to produce a stark yin-yang-ish image capturing the dynamism of Mann’s legacy, and incorporating swirls of text, such as: “…quicksilver mind – racetrack speed – funny… – unique…”
Other pieces by American composers/artists includee Arias, Bogota, Chris David (2019) by the New Zealand-born David Watson. (Bogata, of course, is the capital of Colombia, where Watson and Mann were once invited to perform.) Then there’s Collaboration (1996) by composer Larry Polansky, with text by Mann, and input from clarinettist Sam Torrisi and composers Carter Scholz and Maggi Payne.
Here are notable pieces by Australian contributors, too. For example, A Drawing of Chris Mann, is exactly that, by Adelaide-born Australian artist Katy Munson, photographed by Marcus O’Donnell and sub-titled St Kilda, ca 1996; a sensitive, elegant and thoughtful colour portrait, with Mann’s head turned in reflective profile, his eyes now gently closed.
Next, Rationale #1, Met So Piano (Remembering Chris Mann) is a moving piece, linked to SoundCloud, by Australian composer, artist and technology researcher Rodney Berry, all framed by a colour image of a face hovering above an electronic console. An electronic piece just over six minutes in length, and highly evocative, it starts as a sort of sibilant echo-chamber drone, as if to summon deep-space reverberations, swaddling and enveloping lost memories floating high in the night skies. It develops into an electronic bass ommmm sound, seeming to sigh and cry as multiple waves of sound break across the spectrum, further evoking echoes of celebration and loss.
Launching Piece 2, by American-born composer and long-time Australian resident Warren Burt, and videoed by Catherine Schieve, is of a presentation by Burt at Melbourne’s Collected Works Bookshop in 2016. The occasion was to launch Mann’s newest book, Whistlin Is Did, published by Cordite Publishing Inc. (Interestingly, I wrote the introduction to Whistlin is Did and was also at the launch that evening.)
Seated between two speakers, Burt presses a small tablet keyboard which triggers a combo of electronic sounds/Mann’s vocals. The piece is a extract from Burt’s longer Launching Piece 2 (#2), again videoed by Schieve, which immediately follows, employing a much larger array of electronic devices laid out on a veranda in Daylesford, country Victoria.
The next piece, Chris Mann and David Chesworth (1985) is in contrasting style, taken from a 1985 ABC radio broadcast. It is a bright and bouncy pop song by British-born Australian composer and interdisciplinary artist David Chesworth. Its lively rhythms support equally rhythmic passages of recitative by Mann, effortlessly capturing and highlighting Mann’s playful humour and an underlying joie de vivre.
This is followed by Nuffa That (2018), a tribute to Mann by Australian composer and musician Ron Nagorka, and comes complete with introductory notes and musical score, including reminiscences by Nagorka of his first meetings with Mann. For voice and MIDI keyboard, it sets a Mann text, which is amusingly sung in Nagorka’s own creaky-door bass voice, which only somehow further emphasises the creative quirks, restless wordplay and quick-darting humour of Mann.
Two for Chris (#1 and 2) which immediately follow, are arresting visual images by Australian Melbourne-based musician, visual artists and composer Brigid Burke. These twin colour images combine a printed Mann text overlaid with graphics, and were also used for the covers of the printed Magazine (and now pdf) of this Open Space two-part Mann edition.
Finally, we have Machine for Making Sense, 1944-2008, by Australian video artist, musician and electronics engineer Stephen Jones, which initially began as a 24-minutes video recording of Australian new music group, Machine for Making Sense, when it performed at the Sydney Opera House in 1994. This iconic ensemble consisted of composer/musician Jim Denley (wind instruments); composer/musician Rik Rue (digital and tape manipulations); Amanda Stewart (poet, performer and sound artist); Stevie Wishart (hurdy-gurdy, violin and vocals); and, of course, Mann.
Jones and his fellow camera operator Stuart Lynch filmed the Machine’s Opera House show, then Denley cut the sound recording to 20 minutes, while Jones – over the following 14 years – incorporated much additional visual material, all gorgeously treated, colourised and overlaid with shifting, semi-transparent imagery.
As previously mentioned, a pdf of the print Magazine section of Open Space’s special Chris Mann edition is also available. It is edited by Elaine Radoff Barkin and Dorota Czerner, and is soon to be downloadable (for a well-worthwhile, cross arts-supportive fee) from: https://the-open-space.org/current-issue/
Like the Webpage, the 92-page Magazine is also generous, engaging and very lively. In a recent email, its co-editor Dorota Czerner reminded me how,“…the print (and now pdf) part of this publication is … essential!”
Magazine and Webpage components are mutually complementary and sprinkled with various pieces of artwork, plus additional multi-file links. So click on the Webpage, buy the Magazine pdf, take a leisurely couch trip and enjoy!