Friday, December 23, 2005

Seeing Failure: The Pianist Stumbles

An interesting exploration of sight-reading by visual artist Jenny Perlin.

"A three channel video projection depicting three professional pianists attempting to perform a piece of music that they have never seen before. Each pianist is shown in a separate projection, and each starts the piece at the same time. They then continue playing at their natural speed. The work, Robert Schumann’s piano concerto in A minor, is challenging, and the pianists make mistakes. After a mistake, the pianist’s screen goes dark for five seconds, and their music stops, while the other pianists continue uninterrupted. Then the projection resumes, and the pianist continues playing. The more challenging the piece becomes, the more mistakes the players make, and the more the three projections turn off. In this piece, the editing itself becomes the taskmaster; the act of cutting determines a player’s presence as performer." More Here.

Described by one reviewer this way: " What begins as familiar music ends up as disjointed dissonance -- but with each pianist laboring honestly to create artistic perfection." Link.

I've really been intrigued by this idea since reading about it.


Heather Heise said...

The museum curator makes what, to me, is the most poignant observation: "What happens in that moment when we press the wrong key, and how do we decide to keep going?" This refers to LIFE, not just sight-reading. When a highly trained pianist reads through challenging music, there is actually very little "decision making" going on. We're not aware of "mistakes" in that note-picky sense. It's all about the bigger picture: great sight readers just keep going...gracefully and smoothly. Perlin's piece, by focusing on THE MISTAKE and then making the screen go blank, does not mirror what it's like to actually sight read. But will people make that distinction? Will they read the video installation as life metaphorical or, more voyeuristically, as some (incorrect) insight to how musicians work? Fascinating...and from a pianist's perspective, a little terrifying!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing about my piece Sight Reading! Please feel free to let me know if you have any questions. You can email me at
Jenny Perlin

Anonymous said...

Hi Heather,
I realize this is several months late to respond to your comments but since Sight Reading continues to have numerous exhibitions I can only tell you that audiences are a source of fascination to me for this work. As an amateur musician myself, I am in awe of those who can sight read without hesiatation (unlike myself). The audiences are divided 50/50 when watching this work, some see 'all the mistakes' and others see the incredible skill and training that these musicians bring to this project. In my explanations of the work, I describe the piece 'life-metaphorical,' to use your terminology, and am fascinated with the relationship between written music-text, the body, and what comes forth from the instrument when translated/channeled/performed by trained players. Thanks for your comments. Best, Jenny