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Reading Machine for Parsifal. One Signature comprises an unfolded sheet of music, printed on both sides, that is sandwiched between two sheets of glass. The glass is in a brushed brass frame and is mounted on a brass and lacquered stand, cheval glass style, so that it can be rotated. This work is one of a group 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 Parsifal (1882 – 38,969,364,735) 1990 (T11933), the artist focuses on a sequence of music written as an addition to the original opera by Wagner’s assistant Engelbert Humperdinck (1854–1921). T12202 displays Humperdinck’s supplementary musical score.
Graham is a Canadian conceptual artist and musician who lives and works in Vancouver. His art appropriates material from a diverse range of literary and musical sources. In Reading Machine for Parsifal. One Signature and the other Parsifal works, Graham plays with themes that characterise much of his output: the 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, for example, Parsifal (1882–38,969,364,735) 1990–2, a music installation that is computer driven and plays loops of different lengths. In T12202, Graham places the sheet music in a specially-designed, rotating stand to make the concept of the loop physical and visual.
In terms of its materials and title, Reading Machine for Parsifal may perhaps be seen as making reference to Marcel Duchamp’s famous two panel glass piece The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) 1915–23, of which T02011 is a reconstruction by Richard Hamilton made in 1965–6. T12202 has echoes too of Francis Picabia’s drawing of a hinged window Gabrielle Buffet: She Corrects Manners Laughing 1915 (Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, reproduced in Jennifer Mundy (ed.), Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2008, no.4 p.11).
Reading Machine for Parsifal is related to other of Graham’s works which display texts in ways which control the methods that have to be employed to read them. In Parsifal. Transformation Music (Act 1), a book lies closed in a wooden and glass box. In Reading Machine for Lenz, dating from 1998 but planned earlier (reproduced in Rodney Graham, 2002, pp.70–1), Graham designed a system of intersecting frames to display a part of the unfinished novella Lenz by Georg Büchner (1813–37) in such a way as to make the reading of the extract circuitous. The artist’s use of cases and coverings may operate metaphorically to complement the complex encodings and literary systems that the writings deploy or suggest.
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 whole orchestra almost 39 billion years to join up with itself. 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.)
Rodney Graham, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 2002, reproduced p.85.
Rodney Graham: A Little Thought, exhibition catalogue, Vancouver Art Gallery, 2003, reproduced p.51.
Dorothea Zwirner, Rodney Graham, Cologne 2004.