Thinking aloud: Philip Glass and Marilyn Arsem

Marilyn Arsem, rephotographed from the limited edition publication "Free Clinic 2." Original photograph is by He Chengyao


Thursday, October 13, at Human Resources Marilyn Arsem performed- the last of three artists that evening. Saturday I saw experienced Philip Glass’s Another Look at Harmony, Part 4 at Jacaranda. Fortuitous, I call it. Two of what might be termed endurance pieces in different parts of town and working in vastly differing media. Maybe. We’ll see.

The thought of synchronicity came to me about 12 minutes into Glass’s choral and organ piece as I thought what the next 40 or so minutes might hold and remembered feeling similarly during Arsem’s performance. After the Human Resources event, which lasted most of an hour and on the surface contained only minimal action by Arsem, Asher Hartman allowed that “…with that sort of performance you know they’re going to hate you,” and in his preparatory comments for the Glass music, Patrick Scott warned us to “Surrender” to the coming experience.


In the center of the concrete floor stood a chair. From under this chair was spreading a fog or a liquid smoke. Before the chair was a potted tree (still in the plastic pot from Home Depot) , some familiar house tree with variegated color leaves and many tiny branches. Arsem approached this setting and sat and began plucking leaves. Oh- around on the floor were shiny metal balls, maybe 2″ in diameter. These were either left from the previous performance or were part of Arsem’s installation, I do not know.

I shuddered when I saw the artist begin plucking. Oh dear- she’s not going to do the entire tree, is she? I watched and waited and learned.

Is it a way of gaining focus? Or of losing focus, perhaps? I wondered of the repetitive leaf pulling, is this a negotiation with the space and with the audience? Paul Waddell knows her, he is watching her. (Waddell told a story of knowing Arsem to Catherine Taft. Taft transcribed this oral history for the intro in the limited edition publication, of which there may be a few remaining. Check it out at Human Resources, link below.) Asher gazes on the scene from one wall- does he look proud? Connected? By way of practice, and of longevity of practice? Has he past experience with Marilyn Arsem, I wonder? Paul Waddell has his head on his fist, now. There is almost a violence of pulling, now. Slowed, the pulling, the leaves on the concrete are nice- lovely. The sound is good, too, of the artist pulling, plucking, breathing.

Purpley-red damask on the seat. Liquid, viscous, on the ground. Black simple dress, strap low heel shoes. Branches getting bare, now. Makes a Japanese print, or gouache. Chinese, perhaps in reference to our location? Could the chair drape refer to a theater curtain- black in its redness, pulled from before the screen to cover this… mage’s chair? Is the liquid a reference to spilled coke? Whatever-  the top of the tree is bare, like winter, either very old or very young. The bushy presence of leaves below this bareness is difficult to explain to my eyes- it looks wrong and is beautiful. The publication tells me that Arsem often responds to location in her work.

A small unconscious movement of the artist’s body draws my attention to the leaves in her lap. Something in me staggers: I AM GOING TO KILL MYSELF or scream, I think. And yes, those leaves, as the pile grows, spills and is replenished in the strange, silent woman’s lap- the leaves are beautiful.

What must her hand smell like, I think. She looks up as folk depart, which they do, one by one- only a few in total, but each departure is noticeable and is remarked upon by the artist’s body. One time she looks not up but down to watch the leaving feet. And the leaves at her feet, as she plucks and drops them.

WHAT IS SHE DOING? I AM SO FUCKED. I begin to write with my left hand, out of desperation to remain conscious- people around me slouch and I lay down on the floor. This is super aggressive- super passive aggressive. Freaking harpie. Shrew. Her toes are in it now, the leaf matter.

Finally the tree is mostly bare. Denouement—delicacy—beauty. A lot like a frugal housewife scooping egg whites from a broken shell, Arsem with her pointed fingertips pinches the tiniest not quite visible bits of leaf matter from the tree. Her picking becomes impressive as it is completed. She takes up clippers and a part of me dies.

No more, not again. Not that, please. The woman clips, and she stacks the delicate branches at her side. These pile and are so slender as to be transparent and shockingly lovely- like the bones of birds, or of small children, in a pile before their nest if birds and of their mother if children. She then clips the pot from the stump and digs at the earth with her hands. Tearing, gouging, grasping, desperate, furious? Her body crouches, her face is set- as it has been but now fierce. Cuts at the roots, she does, and discards the dirty bones. (Anne Carson, in her translations from the Greek dramas, has words for such actions.)

She considers her dilemma. (Would the tree be free if she could prevail? Would she? Would I?) Grabbing the small trunk she heaves the clod of dirt at the floor. Thunk. Thunk. Damn. Only crumbles move from the clot of dirt and roots. Again and again- then she stops. And Arsem looks out… at what?

She rises, drops the tree, looks forward, then at the floor, and with her foot lightly yet with great purpose taps at one of the silver balls. Twice. Marilyn Arsem leaves.

During my time with Arsem’s performance, I think you can see that my mind went all over the place- sometimes in mid-thought. Struggle, surrender, respect, anger, conflict and desire all came to my being, and in passing through me they have left me changed.

In the truest indication of this change, I had an experience later in the weekend that tried me, found me wanting and then encouraged me to rise to the occasion. All is good.


“Another Look at Harmony, Part 4 was first performed at Carnegie Hall in 1978, when the composer was still making ends meet as a taxi driver, a furniture mover and an inexperienced plumber.” Patrick Scott’s program notes tell me this and more. At Jacaranda the music was performed by nearly 30 singers and an organist. Let me tell you first that these people are heroes. Mark Alan Hilt at the organ and all the vocalists deserve huge praise for making difficult music beautiful and making it so for what seemed like hours. This could have been so much less than it was. Yay and thanks to them all.

Earlier that evening had been another Glass piece, the String Quartet No. 5. This music made me angry and I hated everybody for it. The quartet was full of his several tricks, each repeated too many times. Always this composer is willing to carry his repetition just six steps too far. I vowed never to return to Jacaranda, nor to Santa Monica if I could avoid it. (My anger burns like the tantrums of a spoiled child when culture disappoints me and I imagined myself hammering out the headlamps of cars in the parking lot to calm my fury.) We returned after the second half and we sat near the back, rather than up close as we usually do. The musicians filed in. We all clapped a welcome.

I begin somewhere around 3 minutes into the piece.

… the singers add long ‘e’ sounds (the first sequence contained only short ‘a’ sounds), this is Philip Glass at basic minimal excellence and my body responds to the bondage of minimalism in its usual baroque fashion: I find multiple beats to follow and if I could have danced I would have. So many are the opportunities for movement and response in this music. Now the vocals are deeper and the organ choppy-  quick and scrolly. A repeated arpeggio, I think.

My hearing changes- or is it my listening? The pulse and beat becomes complicated in my mind. Active-  that’s what it is, this minimal thing Glass does. Do the sounds now become harder? Short ‘a’ paired with a ‘d’ instead of short ‘a’ with a long ‘e’.

The organ changes, breaks rhythm and the bits start at their former center, now: the sound-objects split and pair up with their neighbors.

“Things disappear,” I think. My mind goes back to the oft-quoted poem of Yeats’, The Second Coming, and to the origins of deconstruction: It is not that the center cannot hold, this music is the center (or describes it) and it is infinite. There is nothing to be held and no solid place from which to observe. This is what Glass shows me.

I wonder- if the tools were right, would this music spread through all dimensions? The famous piece in Germany-  the centuries long organ thing- is this eternity of space what Glass means the near endlessness of that piece to tell us?

Glass’s mining, or colonisation of history (as with Akhneten and Einstein on the Beach), is it indicated in the timelessness of his music? Are the vocalists now singing ‘bee bop’? Crazy. “Good lord,” I think again, “Movement seems so natural in this place.” Flights of fancy coming out of the aether- utter, almost bleak repetition. Sudden off-tones. My god I am crying, this is beautiful and it hurts. Are the vocalists falling apart? Am I? Is the world? Tears again. Voices stop.

Only the organ now. So much change. Organ is high, constant, not plaintive- confident and leading and a comfort to me. Mark aces it. Wow! I choke. More tears.

Vocals begin again, this like a boy’s choir. Quieter now, the voices. Is the organ baroque? Are they singing ‘so’ or ‘song’? [The broken, off-tones of several moments ago were stunning, really. Like a struggle for life, like the black keys on a piano- harsh but just right.]

The sound builds now. This experience is like being bound. This restraint drives me out of myself like meditation. The repetitive words are a comfort, like my grandmother’s story’s and like a heartbeat next to me, even like my own. The voices reassure of life and lead [faster vocals now] to hope. Much speedier, hard to follow- voices and organ switch places then become one. Mark’s organ is crazy like a surfer. Like an acid trip, like Eric Burdon and the Animals. Now like church. Now triumphal with calm voices beneath- ‘it’s so’ they might be singing, or not.

This is gorgeous. So much change. Big organ after full stop. ‘So so la’ they sing. Coda with no return. Straight vertical organ playing, deep vocals. Jagged then flat- in time and in sound. Sound seems to build in layers, but not. More than three dimensions are at play. “Layers’ exist atop, alongside, before and after one another. The thickness remains the same: Flat. A flatness that encompasses many dimensions once I enter. (Is this the flatness that Davida Nemeroff and other artists talk about?) When, during listening, I imagine change it is because time happens in my mind and repetition happens in space. These two intersect like waves at different frequencies. What I just heard changes what I hear now. The ending is sudden and is perfect. We all are stunned for a moment.


My occasional impatience and my bouts of fury with culture- be it music, painting, cinema, what have you- are acceptable to me only because they so often lead to some transcendence. These internal tantrums are not sparked by lack of quality on an artist’s part (indeed in the case of the String Quartet the players were magnificent- the audience went wild afterward and I was chagrined for my ignorance)- for lesser work I reserve a nonchalant disinterest. Rather, there is a thing about what I hear or see that I do not understand and my mind hurts from trying to bend around it, attempting to take it in. Human nature is so close to our animal roots, during my experiences with Arsem and with Glass and their challenging work I feel like an animal that is having human culture forced upon him- and I struggle.

Returning now to the prologue, I ask myself again, “Is the term endurance art fair for experiences such as I have had with Arsem’s performance and Glass’s music? Do these practices require surrender from a viewer? Can this surrender lead to growth and rich experiences?” I’d say “Yes!” to all. I am grateful to artists that they expect some of this response and carry on anyway.

Human Resources website:

Marilyn Arsem website:

The Action Bureau website:

Jacaranda Music website:

Philip Glass website: (concert calendar)

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