Parsifal (1882 – 38,969,364,735) comprises a folded musical score contained within a specially-produced hard cover. It is one of an edition of forty and from a larger group of works by Graham about Parsifal, the final opera of the German composer Richard Wagner (1813–83). In these works, which include Parsifal. Transformation Music (Act 1) 1989 (T11932) and Reading Machine for Parsifal. One Signature 1992 (T12202), the artist focuses on a sequence of music by Wagner’s assistant Engelbert Humperdinck (1854–1921), written as an addition to the original opera. T11933 reproduces Humperdinck’s supplementary score within a yellow cover that bears the work’s name in black, upper case letters.

Graham is a Canadian conceptual artist who lives and works in Vancouver. His work appropriates a diverse range of source material, both literary and musical. In Parsifal (1882 – 38,969,364,735) and the other Parsifal works, Graham plays with themes that characterise much of his output: the ambiguous question of authorship, repetition and looping, and the significance of the supplement or pendant.

The origins of T11933 lie in an anecdote that Graham heard about the rehearsal for the premiere of Wagner’s new opera at the Bayreuth Festival of 1882. Writing in 1994, the artist explained:

Wagner encountered a technical difficulty involving the synchronisation of music and scenery in the opera’s first act. In this scene, Parsifal ascends a slope towards the Temple of the Holy Grail to the accompaniment of a four minute orchestral passage. The problem concerned the ‘transformation curtains’ comprised of four canvases painted with landscape scenery, and which, carried across the stage by means of rollers, were to create the illusion of Parsifal’s movement through a constantly changing landscape. It happened that the ‘transformation curtains’ were too long and the music too short – the latter invariably ran out before Parsifal reached the Grail Temple. When asked by the scenic designer for more music Wagner refused, reportedly replying, – ‘I do not write music by the metre!’ Fortunately, the composer Engelbert Humperdinck ... wrote some additional bars which were hastily written into the orchestral score, to co-ordinate pit and stage for the first few festival performances.

(Quoted in Rodney Graham, 2002, p.84.)

Humperdinck’s additional sequence was designed as a loop that could be indefinitely repeated to synchronise with the activity on stage. Graham elaborates: ‘I discovered that Humperdinck had written no new music, merely manipulating the bars so that Wagner’s music could be joined back to itself at an earlier point’ (quoted in Rodney Graham, 2002, p.84). In his response to Humperdinck’s supplement, Graham constructed a complex system of musical loops based on Humperdinck’s score, which he transcribed into sheet music. He assigned a number of repetitions of parts of the sequence to each instrument of the orchestra. The sequence of repetitions is designed so that at its end it can be repeated until all the different instruments join up.

Central to the artist’s concept with the Parsifal works is the potential limitlessness of the looping composition. Assigning the score a slow march tempo of one quarter-note per second, Graham has calculated that if the composition were played in its entirety: ‘the whole orchestra would not join up with itself until 307,444,891,249,706 bars ... had elapsed’ (quoted in Rodney Graham, 2002, p.87). On this basis, Graham proposed that the entire work would take 1,229,779,565,176,982,829 seconds to play, the equivalent of about 39 billion years. The title of T11933 refers directly to this calculation, as the numbers in parentheses indicate the year in which Parsifal was first staged, and the year in which the instruments should synchronise. Thus, the score includes the explanation: ‘Begins 5.00pm Wednesday July 26, 1882 / Ends 7.00pm Monday June 18, 38,969,364,735’.

On his interpretation of Parsifal, the artist has commented:

In a way the piece is trivial. It is purely conceptual. You have to locate yourself in both the concept and the original anecdote. I guess what I am trying to say is that it does not succeed as a piece of music ... In some ways it is a musical joke. To me it redeems itself only because it is a joke of cosmic proportions.

(Quoted in Rodney Graham, 2002, p.77.)

Further reading:
Rodney Graham, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 2002.
Rodney Graham: A Little Thought, exhibition catalogue, Vancouver Art Gallery, 2003.
Dorothea Zwirner, Rodney Graham, Cologne 2004.

Alice Sanger
September 2010