Susan Philipsz and the FBI’s War on the Atonal

THE DAILY PIC: The sound artist mixes Hanns Eisler's music and the FBI files on him.



Here’s one picture from a complicated sound-and-image installation by Susan Philipsz, now on view at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York. (Click on my image to watch a video tour of the show.)

The sounds come through 12 speakers spread across the room, which project some notes from the violin parts of film scores by avant-garde composer Hanns Eisler. (I don’t believe that all the music is 12-tone, but the rhyme with Philipsz’s 12 speakers is nice anyway.) A Jew, Eisler sought refuge from Hitler in the United States, then had to flee back to Europe during McCarthy’s Red Scare. Oddly enough, by eliminating many of Eisler’s notes and pulling them out across space, Philipsz makes Eisler’s music more easily digested than in its raw atonal state–the effect is almost old-fashioned, evoking the split choirs of Bach and Monteverdi.

Philipsz’s images in the show, including today’s Daily Pic, are enlargements of Eisler’s scores that she has overlaid with declassified pages from the FBI’s surveillance records for the composer, vast swaths of which have been redacted. A trip to Mexico was clearly seen as suspect, as was Eisler’s friendship with “subversives” such as Charlie Chaplin. Which brings us to the most fascinating fact to emerge from the show: Some of the music we hear was composed specifically for The Circus by Chaplin. I knew that Chaplin had been adopted by the avant garde as a genius of popular film. What I didn’t know was that he himself had sought links to high culture’s cutting edge.

Now I’m desperate to hear the surviving bits of Eisler’s score alongside the film for which it was written.

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