Creed’s Olympic Text Score

This morning, bells across the UK were sounded in a performance of Martin Creed’s Work No. 1197:

All the bells in a country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes

I put my head out of the kitchen door but I couldn’t hear anything from my location in central Charlton.

I’m writing up a review of John Lely and James Saunders’ book Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation,* so text scores like this are very much on my mind at the moment. It occurs to me that Work No. 1197 was probably the largest single performance of a verbal score there has been,** although I don’t recall anyone making a connection between Creed’s art and that of Yoko Ono, George Brecht or La Monte Young.

Actually, stylistically I think it sits more closely with Gavin Bryars’ Far Away and Dimly Pealing (1970). Not just because of the bell connections (although Bryars’ piece specifies only ‘sounds’), but because of the confluence of sound with vast dimensions and a (near-) impossible goal. (Far Away and Dimly Pealing asks the performer to activivate a sound source from a distance of one mile. The sound must be loud enough to be heard at that distance.) That combination of utopianism and reserved empiricism seems characteristic of quite a lot of British text scores: I’m thinking also of Michael Parson’s Walk pieces or Echo pieces (in which space and distance also play a part), or even Cardew’s Schooltime Compositions (1967). But then there are also connections with pieces like Ono’s Laugh Piece (1961): ‘Keep laughing a week’, or Kunsu Shim’s PLACES for Airhorn (1999) in which a performer must sound an airhorn for a long duration at a set time on several consecutive days (I summarise), or even Mieko Shiomi’s nine Spatial Poems, which require participants worldwide to perform an act at a given moment wherever they are.

I also like the fact that despite the occasion of its commissioning and first performance, and its obviously celebratory, festive mood, Creed’s work is completely transferrable and non-jingoistic: ‘all the bells in a country’. Even a change of ‘a’ to ‘the’ would have changed its tone hugely.

There was a bit of a hoo-ha last year when the staunchly traditional Central Council of Church Bell Ringers was invited to become involved in Creed’s project. Not the sort of thing church bells are designed for, was the basic tone of their argument. But that’s the thing: Creed’s piece has built-in flexibility (‘as possible’). Interpreting it requires a slightly different (more ingenuous?) style of reading than a typical musical score. It’s not a specification for precise musical action, but an injunction to attempt something unpredictable and miraculous. As Word Events lays out, there is a 50-year-old context and practice for text scores like this, in which vast amounts of nuanced musical activity can be created with very great efficiency. Work No. 1197 sits comfortably within several strands of that history, and makes its own unique contribution.

*To be posted here soon.

**Although see Daniel Wolf’s comment below.

4 thoughts on “Creed’s Olympic Text Score

  1. “It occurs to me that Work No. 1197 was probably the largest single performance of a verbal score there has been…”

    In the absence of reliable statistics for the (annual?) Global Orgasm for Peace, I suspect that you’re correct that this event is the largest _verifiable_ word event of its kind.

  2. There were a couple of reasons why the CCCBR didn’t like the project – at least initially. The first was the ham-fisted approach made to them, asking them to insist on their members ringing the bells (originally the idea was at some ludicrous time like 4am) without discussion of practicalities (like work, disturbance etc); the other was that ‘as loud and fast as possible’ simply isn’t possible on bells – you can’t control the volume, and if you try to ring as fast as possible you’re likely to injure yourself. It’s antithetical to bell-ringing as a practice.

    I have no problem with text pieces, and absolutely appreciate the utopian quality to many of them (they rapidly moved towards defining impossibilities, most famously with Paik’s piece for Dick Higgins). But if you’re actually going to realise it, it’s not helpful to foist on to people a practice that goes against their musical culture on threat of appearing curmudgeonly. Interestingly, when Creed had this piece done before (hence ‘a’ country, not ‘the’ country) it wasn’t taken up overly enthusiastically either, at least judging by the one blog / review of the event available online.

    At the end of the day, there are better pieces. I’m looking forward to aspects of the Olympics, but don’t need to be told to have a good time. I can always go to McDonalds for that instruction.

    1. Yes, the original 4am timing was a bit silly. (It then appeared to have been revised to 8am – the 08:12 specification came quite late in the day it seems, in spite of its numerological significance.)

      I still think ‘as possible’ allows for performance on any kind of bell. As Creed said himself in one of the Sunday papers (I paraphrase): ‘If the bell can only be rung once a year, that’s still as fast as possible’. One’s own definition of ‘as possible’ would presumably also include the extent to which the performer is prepared to sustain an injury.

      My point here is that if you read the text one way it’s OK; if you read it another it becomes problematic. And that familiarity with other word events, or a much less acculturated approach to the score, eliminates many of the problems raised.

      I had a look for a review of an earlier performance, but of course it’s buried on Google now. Here’s one of today’s version anyway: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/olympics/london-2012-festival/9431580/London-2012-Martin-Creeds-Work-No.-1197-All-the-Bells-St-John-at-Hackney.html

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