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When Claudia Gould turned six, her uncle gave her a birthday present: a stained-brown wooden music box made by Reuge Music of Switzerland that contained a tiny ballerina twirling to the soothing strains of Johann Strauss's "The Emperor Waltz." More than 30 years later Gould, the director of Artists Space (a New York City exhibition site), is working in collaboration with the 100-year-old Reuge company on "The Music Box Project," which opens tonight (Thursday) at the Center for the Fine Arts and runs through March 17.
The much-acclaimed exhibit, which premiered in November 1994 at the Equitable Gallery in New York, combines the work of twenty noted artists and composers who have crafted their own unique music boxes and, in some cases, written their own music for the tinkling sonic gizmos. In both sound and design, their creations have little in common with the traditional boxes that are gathering dust on bedroom dressers across the globe. Laurie Anderson's Tilt #1, for example, features two musical mechanisms housed in a carpenter's level; Vito Acconci's Ready-to-Wear Music Box is a clear vinyl vest with pockets containing 30 of the musical devices, each of which plays a different eighteen-note composition, ranging from Tchaikovsky's music for Swan Lake to "Happy Birthday"; 3D Tattoo/Gimme Shelter by Wolf Prix (a founder of the the Coop Himmelblau design firm) is a three-legged replica of the artist's praying-mantis-shape tattoo that plays the opening lines of the Rolling Stones' 1969 classic of the same title; John Cage's Extended Lullaby spreads twelve music boxes -- each playing a fragment of a piece he wrote for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company a year before his 1992 death-- across a long, nondescript table.
"The Music Box Project" is the outgrowth of an idea concocted by Gould in the mid-Eighties while she was working as editor at Tellus: The Audio Magazine, a New York City arts and music publication she cofounded. "We came up with the idea of making an object that had sound in it that we could market and sell to raise money for the magazine," says Gould, curator of the CFA exhibit. "I had four artists in mind: two well-known, John Cage and Laurie Anderson, and two who were hardly known at the time, Christian Marclay and Kiki Smith. It began there and I blindly called John Reuge in Switzerland, who had manufactured the music box my uncle gave me. We found out, though, that it was way too expensive for us, so we had to put the project aside. But I always kept the idea in the back of my mind."
In 1986 Gould met the Geneva artist John Armleder, who had an associate doing freelance work for Reuge, which had recently been sold. A phone call was made to Stefan Mller, the company's new president, who, coincidentally, had been trying to find a project that would help revitalize the Reuge reputation. "He felt that the company had skipped the Twentieth Century because they had stayed with Brahms and Beethoven over all these years," Gould explains. "He wanted to make up for lost time and get the company going in a new direction."
Gould lined up an expanded artist roster that included the likes of Nam June Paik, Gretchen Bender, Jennifer Bolande, Fortuyn/O'Brien, and John Cale (working in collaboration with Joseph Kosuth), and the Reuge staff set about handcrafting the complex musical mechanisms to be added to the artists' boxes. Although some of the artists used music selected from the Reuge catalogue of more than 800 titles, many wrote their own more adventurous pieces, most of which perplexed the Reuge craftsmen. "We would send them the compositions, and after a month I'd get back notes from them saying, 'Sorry, we can't do this,'" Gould says. "It just wasn't music to them. They were used to doing The Four Seasons, and when it came to something like John Cage's stuff, the Reuge music arranger, who had been working there his whole life, thought it was a violation and an insult to him. He didn't think it was music."
Listening to the compact disc that accompanies "The Music Box Project" catalogue, it's easy to hear why the Reuge staff was rankled. For every stately piece of traditional classical music … la Bach's F-Minor Chorale Prelude 639, used in Gretchen Bender's untitled box, there's something like Jonathan Borofsky's White Christmas for Music Box and Voice (Forwards and Backwards), which delightfully mangles Irving Berlin's holiday chestnut. Christian Marclay's Wind Up Guitar contains twelve boxes implanted in the body of a lacquered and playable acoustic guitar. Although each of the Marclay boxes contains a piece selected from the Reuge catalog, the effect of hearing all twelve mechanisms playing in tandem is unsettling and creepy -- like hearing Hell's wind chimes. And you can experience the cacophony for yourself tonight at 8:00, when New York City avant-garde instrumentalist Elliot Sharp performs an improvised piece on Marclay's music-box guitar at the opening of "The Music Box Project." (Sharp and Marclay will also speak at the CFA on Saturday.)
Although Gould admits she wanted to include more composers -- David Byrne, Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel, and Glenn Branca all declined to participate A she believes "The Music Box Project" exposes a seldom-seen side of the visual and musical artists involved: "A lot of artists make music themselves, and I was just amazed by what they came up with. Visually, the pieces are just beautiful. I think it's quite clear that the artists were really inspired by the idea of doing something musical.