Rodney Graham

Parsifal. Transformation Music (Act I). With E. Humperdinck’s Supplement No. 90. The Latter Transcribed from the Original Manuscript and the Whole Typeset According to the Artist’s Specifications


Hardwood, glass and book
Displayed: 1100 x 600 x 540 mm
Purchased from funds provided by the Mary Joy Thomson Bequest 2005


Parsifal. Transformation Music (Act 1. With E. Humperdinck’s Supplement No. 90. The Latter Transcribed from the Original Manuscript and the Whole Typeset According to the Artist’s Specifications is an artist’s book presented in a four-legged wood and glass display case. It is one of a group of works by Graham about Parsifal, the final opera of the German composer Richard Wagner (1813–83). In these works, which include Parsifal (1882 – 38,969,364,735) 1990 (T11933) and Parsifal (1882 – 38,969,364,735) 1990 (T11933), the artist focuses on a sequence of music by Wagner’s assistant Engelbert Humperdinck (1854–1921), written as an addition to the original opera. T11932 displays a transcription of Humperdinck’s supplementary score. The book was published in Brussels by Yves Gevaert. Tate’s copy is the seventh in an edition of twelve.

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. Transformation Music (Act 1) 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 T11932 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. His Parsifal works include Parsifal (1882–38,969,364,735) 1990–2, a music installation that is computer driven and plays loops of different lengths. In T11932, Graham interprets Humperdinck’s score as a text, in this example in the form of a book that lies closed and inaccessible in its display case.

Graham’s use of cases and bindings for texts removes them from the domain of the ordinary and suggests a reverential (or mock reverential) attitude towards them. Such coverings and layers can also function metaphorically to complement the complex encodings and literary systems deployed within the texts themselves. Another of the Parsifal works, Reading Machine for Parsifal. One Signature, for example, comprises a sheet of music sandwiched between two pieces of glass in a frame, which is mounted on a stand. In Casino Royale (Sculpture de Voyage) 1990 (T11934), a copy of the novel Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (1908–64), first published in 1953, lies face-down inside a display rectangular case, in which it has to be viewed from underneath to be read.

Central to the artist’s concept with the Parsifal works is the potential limitlessness of the looping composition. Graham has calculated that, if played in its entirety, it would take the orchestra almost 39 billion years to return to the beginning. He 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