Marina Abramović - Igor Levit - Urs Schönebaum
Goldberg (2015; world premiere)

Park Avenue Armory
New York
December 7-19, 2015

Anri Sala
Anri Sala: Answer Me
Curated by Massimiliano Gioni - Margaret Norton - Natalie Bell

New Museum
New York
February 3-April 10, 2016

The responsibility for guiding audiences in the act of listening to classical music has historically rested on the shoulders of composers. In the United States, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thompson, and John Cage each brought a prolific pen to the discussion. In Europe, Pierre Boulez and more recently Heiner Goebbels have both asked us to reconsider the relationship between music and the audience.

The baton of inquiry is now passing to contemporary visual artists. Two recent shows in New York have questioned the assumptions on which the act of listening seems to be founded. Marina Abramović’s Goldberg at the Park Avenue Armory made her case for the Abramović Method for Music, while at the New Museum Anri Sala’s Ravel Ravel offered an “invitational” approach. Both explore considerations of time and space and both take their inspiration from the classical canon. In asking the very question of how we listen to music, the two responses offer a re-calibration and even re-imagining of the concert hall experience: in asking us to listen to music in a museum space, are we in fact listening to (the) music? Or if not, what?

Fundamentally, the act of listening to music would seem to have evolved very little since the start of human history. It is an elemental exercise. As music became more organized listening became formalized. The performance of music navigated its way from churches and courts to finally arrive at the concert hall in the mid-eighteenth century, when the first hall was built in 1748 in Oxford. Notated classical music has remained in the concert hall ever since. To a decisively overwhelming and perplexing degree “our” experience of listening to concert music is not dissimilar to the experience in 1748. The simple act of “listening” to music is still governed by the same house rules:

  • Patrons purchase tickets for assigned seats. The location(s) of the seats dictate the quality of the music that will be experienced.
  • Before taking one’s seat, the audience deposits personal belongings with the coat check.
  • A bell summons the audience to take their seats.
  • Patrons are directed not to speak, cough, or spit while the music is being performed. They are expected to listen in silence.
  • Patrons are requested not to applaud between the movements.
  • Listen.
  • At a suitable time in the performance, patrons file to the bathrooms en masse, return to their seats en masse, and leave the concert hall en masse.

Since the eighteenth century there has only been one new rule: “Please switch off your mobile phones.” The act of listening to music in the twenty-first century remains bounded by the social and physical architectures of the concert hall of the eighteenth century.

In contrast, the act of looking at art has evolved substantially, along multiple sensorial modes. When contemporary art practice tore itself away from the tyranny of the canvas and the clay in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the awakening of installation art proposed new modes of spectatorship. Patrons were invited to enter a space where the work was no longer a distinct object, but an offering or a series of offerings that could encompass a room or an architectural space that may not even have been situated in a gallery setting at all. Often (depending on the curatorial discretion of the artist) patrons were invited to interact with the installation, allowing them to walk in and out of it and at other times even to touch the work. Sound art carved out a related niche, and artists such as Janet Cardiff began to embrace the classical music canon. For instance, in the 2001 Cardiff/Georges Bures Miller work, The Forty Part Motet, visitors were invited to walk freely through a sound circle made up of 40 loudspeakers projecting Thomas Tallis’s 16th century work Spem in alium on a fourteen-minute loop. The installation directly examined the one question that the concert hall has traditionally failed to investigate: the relationship of sound and space—time in space—and the audience’s relationship to sound.


In the current decade, visual artists  continue to embrace the classical canon but with a heightened attention that places the classical canon on a pedestal. In one sense this enthusiasm can be understood as a kind of neo-classicism—not in the sense of a restoration to order and balance (as in the neoclassical trend in twentieth-century music), but rather, simply, as a broader embrace of the canon of notated classical music. This current has been especially well represented at New York’s Park Avenue Armory. 2014 ended with Douglas Gordon’s tears become... streams become..., which witnessed pianist Hélène Grimaud perform the music of Debussy on a vast mirrored pond of water. Last summer Philippe Parreno’s marquees in H{N)Y P N(Y}OSIS shared exhibition space with four grand pianos, one of which was played by pianist Mikhail Rudy to give live performances of works by Ravel, Scriabin, Ligeti, and Feldman.

Enter Marina Abramović’s Goldberg in the same venue. It is the collaborative expression of three artists: Abramović herself, pianist Igor Levit, and lighting designer Urs Schönebaum.

Abramović’s customary daring announces itself in the program book. It is a World Premiere. Also daring are Abramovic’s instructions for listening:

  • Deposit all personal belongings into your locker, including watches, cell phones, and cameras.
  • Take a pair of noise-cancelling headphones.
  • Find a lounge chair inside the space. Sit down and find stillness and silence. If you like you can close your eyes.
  • When you hear the gong, place your headphones on.
  • When you hear the second gong, remove your headphones.
  • Listen.

The instructions are built on the Abramović Method for Music, which she developed with the aim of “prepar[ing] an audience for listening to classical music.” There is the hint, in this, that we—the audience—have somehow failed to be properly attentive in past decades of concert hall experience. A quasi-spiritual recall to mindfulness is reflected in Abramović’s accompanying commentary: “And you’re arriving, and you sit down, and you hear the concert... but you’re not ready to hear anything. You’re just too busy. So I’m giving this time and space to the public to actually prepare themselves.”

At the world premiere, I dutifully adopted the Abramović method. After depositing my goods in a locker I took my seat in a low-slung lawn chair. The seats were positioned more or less independently of each other and were custom designed by Abramović. At the sound of the gong, in a descending darkness and an accompanying, chromatically descending silence, I put on my headphones. I am reminded of John Cage. “We cannot make silence—we can only listen to its presence.” Even with noise-cancelling headphones silence can be betrayed. Silence remains arbitrary and I am attentive to noise. At the furthest end of the Armory’s Drill Hall, Levit sits at a piano raised on a circular pedestal. The religious ceremony has begun with a call to prayer.

During the next thirty minutes, Levit’s podium slowly processes on a runway to greet the audience, which is seated in a semi-circle formation around the stage. The precise, pageant-like promenade of the thirty minutes is programmed to climax with the communal removal of headphones, after which Bach’s aria begins. During the duration of the eighty-eight minute performance, the pedestalled piano completes a 360-degree rotation at a pace that is almost imperceptible to the eye. The rotation—like the passing orbits of planets—offers each audience member a uniquely tailored audio-visual experience. The artists succeed in their intentions: I am attuning myself as an object in space.

To this point, I have faithfully executed the first five instructions. I have arrived at the final gate: Listen. Abramović’s ultimate one word commandment will take up the next hour of my time. But am I listening? And if so, to whom, or to what? Am I listening to Bach? Am I listening to Levit performing Bach? Am I listening to myself listen? Or am I in fact listening to the interval in between them?


Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 follows a series of thirty variations on a bass line that is introduced in the aria. The opening aria is the crown of the work. Its technical beauty lies in Bach’s ability to render timeless composure through a right hand melody in 3/4 that ripples with compounding, disruptive ornaments. It is a study of contrary beauty. Levit, who recently recorded the work for Sony Classical, exudes a humility that stands in opposition to the virtuosic concentration of mind and technique that is crystallizing in this moment, which has morphed from a performance into an objectification of a performance into a piece of architecture.

Abramović’s revolving stage re-imagines the Goldberg Variations as a building. The work becomes a musical visualization of an iconoclastic sphinx-like edifice. Its role is purposive. We are looking up to the performance of the work in the same way our eye is raised to the arches and ceiling of a Gothic cathedral. Yes, it is the artist’s role to intervene, to disrupt and to enliven, but as the orbiting podium slowly revolves in the cavernous and reverberant Armory Drill Hall, my listening to the Goldberg Variations is recalibrated. In a work whose bass line provides the basis for thirty variations, and in which every third variation is a canon, I hear the different lines in a constantly shifting variety of perspectives. In the unison voices of the third variation, I hear the higher voice. In the two-part canons, depending on the status of the orbit, my listening is influenced by either the left hand or the right hand—whichever is closest to my ears. My ears are walking in and out of the work in the same manner that I walk in and out of a building, through various exits and entrances.

Abramović’s vigilant attention to the architecture of space in Goldberg offers an exploration of time as a value in itself, and time as a value in motion. But rather than ask us to listen more closely to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Goldberg asks us to reconsider our personal responsibility as individual members of the collective we call the audience. While we are listening and watching Levit perform, the semi-circular staging allows us to observe a mirror image of ourselves listening to the same music, in the guise of the person occupying the seat opposite us. We are reassessing listening to ourselves in a self-conscious laboratory. Can we learn to listen? Abramović wants us to reconnect to a nostalgic past of attentive listening that never actually existed. Perhaps in her method it means we just need more practice.


Music is also the leading muse in “Anri Sala: Answer Me,” the precision-curated and beautifully installed three-floor survey of Sala’s work at the New Museum. On the highest floor Sala’s 2013 work Ravel Ravel reflects on the viewer’s awareness of and attentiveness to listening. Ravel Ravel is a video installation of remarkable compulsion that ultimately brings us as close to the object of musical creation as is possible. Like Goldberg, Ravel Ravel proposes the question, Am I listening to the music?

In Ravel Ravel, Sala uses Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D minor (1929-30) as his piece of choice. The work was commissioned by the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right hand in the First World War.

In a shadowy, darkened gray space with minimal bench seating, Sala assembles and juxtaposes two video performances of the solo left hand on the piano on two parallel screens. The hands belong to two different pianists, Louis Lortie and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. The projected performances are played simultaneously in a semi-anechoic chamber. However, each performance is directed to be played at a different tempo This seemingly paradoxical experience of two tailgating interpretations proffered an unanticipatedly trance-like state of calm on the one hand and a sense of urgent anticipation and desire on the other. By installing the work in a chamber designed to absorb sound, my listening is not distracted by superfluous noise. I am alone with others.


I am drawn into the listening of the performance—the unfolding of the musical themes and the kinetic beauty of the two hands moving up and down the piano keyboard, sometimes with grace, sometimes with a clenched motion, or other times in the still pose of a hand suspended in midair. In other frames of the performance I watch a hand falling like hanging fruit from a branch, bearing a carriage of resigned defeat and weariness. Each frame of the performance is a portrait of aching beauty. Our attention to the Concerto is channeled by the detailed cinematic expression of the two independent performances. In Sala’s performance they are now beating as one and as a consequence our heart follows to Wittgenstein. We are anchored in the past and the present. I am magnetized. I am moved, cannot move, and will not move.

I do not want to leave. In Sala’s concert hall I can come and go as I please. I do not have to leave en masse.

Sala’s curatorial impulse is to alert us to our being anchored in space and time. His cinematic eye navigates Ravel’s composition, and converts it into a manifesto of listening, with a guiding hand that is invisible in its virtuosity. There is no imposition of will here. Sala offers us an ultimate “listening” of the Ravel Concerto that literally cannot be reproduced in the concert hall. Did I hear Ravel? I heard every breath. I also felt Wittgenstein.

Through his inspired installation, Sala has thrown down the gauntlet to the concert hall. Is the concert hall listening?

Xenia Hanusiak is a New York-based essayist and cultural commentator. She is a visiting scholar at Columbia University.