Cover Me

“Dave Allen – Canon to the Hammer of the Gods”, The Vienna Secession, 2008

by Raimar Stange

“Well you can imitate ev’ryone you see
Yes you can imitate ev’ryone you see.”

I. Postscript

“For Those About to Rock”[ref]This is, incidentally, the title of a spatial installation done by Dave Allen together with Ross Sinclair in 1994. Team work is a recurrent aspect in the Scotsman’s work.[/ref] is written/drawn on one of the many sheets of the Song Paintings/ Drawings series (since 1996). Scottish artist Dave Allen has created a simplified notation of this rock classic by heavy metal band AC/DC from 1981, rewriting the chords and notes of the song in such a simple form that even less musically versed guitar players can play For Those About to Rock right off the bat: for example, “chorus: play B/A/G/F#/E …” it says briefly and succinctly. The result of this rock exercise would be something like a broken-down cover version that—in the best traditions of punk (“This is a chord, this is another, this a third. Now form a band” was the well-known motto at the time[ref]Cf.: Sawn-Off, exhibition catalogue, Stockholm, 1996, pp. 10 f. These very words also appear in Dave Allen’s installation This is the Score (2005).[/ref])—makes the discipline of rock music accessible to everyone. The Song Paintings/Drawings series is triply typical of Dave Allen’s artistic strategy: A consistent crossover between (rock) music and art takes place; this crossover is conceived as interpretative and thus interactive, with the focus on the aspect of learning; thirdly, these aesthetic actions both inevitably and deliberately blur the boundaries of the “original” and “copy”, “genuine” and “imitation” as well as the boundary between the producer and the audience[ref]Cf. Raimar Stange, Zurück in die Kunst, Hamburg, 2003, pp. 52 f.[/ref].

But let me start by describing another early piece that illustrates these three aspects of Dave Allen’s artistic strategy: the video installation Live Version (1993). Here we see the young artist in musical action on four monitors: On one we see him playing the guitar, on another picking the bass, on the third sitting at the drums learning lyrics, and finally, on the last monitor, singing them. The common denominator of this “Live Version”: Dave Allen practising the rock classic Stairway to Heaven (1971) by the legendary band Led Zeppelin with the guidance of various music teachers. So once again this is an interactive process of learning by doing, once again the result is a more or less successful cover version, and once again no one asks about copyright or proof of quality. “Just do it” is the motto—which puts the special status of the professional musician into the mothballs of music history, that is only putatively “serious” but in fact is more than anything else geared to capitalism. As a result, (rock) music finally regains the “everyday utility value” (John Miller)[ref]Raimar Stange, cover text of the catalogue LP For Those About to Rock (Dave Allen/Douglas Gordon/Jonathan Monk/Ross Sinclair), Schwaz, 2000.[/ref] that is always, or could always be, ingrained in music—and, for Dave Allen, the same applies to art.

II. Early excursus: Copyleft instead of authorship

A small amateur band is playing a cover version, e.g. of the above-mentioned For Those About to Rock, at a concert in an even smaller rock club. The band is obliged to make this known before they play and then immediately to pay licence fees (copyright). The song is protected by copyright and is thus declared to be someone’s property and therefore not freely available to everyone. What seems to be self-evident at first glance proves to be open to criticism on closer inspection. Claiming songs to be property has far-reaching implications: On the one hand it cements the difference between the producer and the consumer: the music fan is expected to submit as such a passive contemporary enjoying a product for a charge, not as an enthusiastic, actively playing producer. On the other hand, this claim is based on the idea of (ingenious) creativity that equates to the bourgeois idea that the result of creation “can be traced back to a unique and original product of an intellectual activity performed by a certain individual”. This “romantic concept of the author” corresponds to the mental attitude that ever binds bourgeois sovereignty to exchange value and property—we need only recall the “Habeas Corpus Amendment Act” that codified basic bourgeois rights in England for the first time in 1679, summarily linking them to “ownership of one’s own body”—and consequently not to an idea of “progressive communal-collective creative production”[ref]All quotations: Martha Woodmansee, Der Autor-Effekt, in: Fotis Jannidis, Gerhard Lauer, Matias Martinez and Simone Winko (ed.), Texte zur Theorie der Autorschaft, Stuttgart, 2000, pp. 313 f.[/ref], that has become established not only in the world of science at least since Roland Barthes’s essay Death of the Author (1968). Or, in the words of Janis Joplin: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”[ref]Janis Joplin in Me and Bobby McGee (1970) written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster.[/ref] In this sense, an emancipatory copyleft that emphasises utility value has long since superseded the arrogant copyright particularly in (rock) music, at least in advanced circles.

III. Naturally music

One very special form of “communal-collective creative production” is the subject of Dave Allen’s complex installation titled The Mirrored Catalogue d’Oiseaux (2002—2007). The starting point or “concrete source of inspiration”, if you will, is the Catalogue d’Oiseaux composed by the French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1956–58. This is something in the manner of a portrait of the home of birds as reflected by their song, for the thirteen pieces for solo piano are all based on musical interpretations of various bird songs. The result, already in Messiaen’s work, is therefore a kind of collective authorship, and there can be no talk of an ingenious creator in the sense of bourgeois copyright—or do birds get royalties, too, nowadays?! Dave Allen continues this process by inverting it, as it were, playing the Catalogue d’Oiseaux on a stereo system to birds in a cage in the middle of an exhibition room of the Halle für Kunst in Lüneburg[ref]Halle für Kunst Lüneburg, May 2002; in summer 2003 Allen installed the project in Philadelphia, Arcadia University Art Gallery, this time with starlings singing instead of mocking birds.[/ref]. He opts for the mockingbird species, as it is known for learning melodies particularly quickly. The artist hopes to hear the birds sing the Catalogue d’Oiseaux in the course of the exhibition—a “closed circuit” ensues that raises questions not only of authorship but also of the relationship between immediacy and medially and to the tug-of-war of culture and nature[ref]On this work: Ross Sinclair, A long journey towards this exact moment, Frankfurt a. M., 2003; Raimar Stange, CrossOver, in: sonambiente, exhibition catalogue, Berlin, 2006, pp. 300 f.[/ref]. In the course of the exhibition a single of mockingbird song has been published—the birds are presented as potential pop stars, but without a doubt as legitimate successors to Olivier Messiaen. And the art catalogue is replaced by a recording that underscores the crossover[ref]The Mirrored Catalogue d’Oiseaux (Boileau & Narcejac), Frankfurt a. M., 2003.[/ref].

Dave Allen also undertook this crossover from pop music to serious music[ref]Of interest in this context: Harald Fricke, Mysterien der Aufnahmetechnik, Dave Allens „Recording“-Arbeiten, in: Wiederaufnahme, exhibition catalogue, Neuer Aachener Kunstverein, Frankfurt a. M., 2001, pp. 62 ff. Fricke emphasises that, by making this shift, Allen distances himself from “that now clichéd game of references from high and low culture”.[/ref] while at the same time integrating nature in For the Dogs. Satie’s “Véritables Préludes Flasques (pour un chien)”, 1912, rendered at tone frequencies above 18 kHz (2002). Taking the title literally, the artist translates the three short pieces for piano written by Erik Satie into frequencies that are inaudible to human beings, but not to dogs. This cover version not only obviously enters into an intertextual dialogue with Satie, it also refers to a piece of rock history, the end of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), that contains a frequency added by John Lennon that is only audible to dogs.[ref]As George Martin, producer of this legendary record, wrote: “More dogs have listened to Sgt. Pepper’s than to any other album in the history of pop music.” (in: Martin, Summer of Love – Wie Sgt. Pepper entstand, Berlin, 1997, p. 216).[/ref] The distinction between rock and serious music, then, also proves to be precarious.

IV. Second excursus: The terms of appropriation

In his book on the final years of Nico, The Velvet Underground singer[ref]Incidentally, in their Jesus video (1997), Dave Allen and Ross Sinclair sing and play the song of the same name by The Velvet Underground. You can hear it on the catalogue LP For Those About to Rock (see note 4).[/ref], James Young describes a doubly strange scene in Tokyo: Nico and John Cale, on tour together at the time, happened to see The Velveteens, a Velvet Underground cover band, playing in a Tokyo entertainment hub; however, the “imitators” do not recognise the two “originals”[ref]In: James Young, Nico. Songs They Never Play on the Radio, London, 1992, p. 188.[/ref]. The situation illustrates various questions revolving around the problem of “original/cover”: What relationship (of dependence?) exists between the two, how big are the differences, how “faithful”, then, is the (representative) relationship, perhaps “indifferent” or even “disobedient”, grossly different? At the beginning of the 1990s, US cultural critic Tricia Rose described the terms of cultural appropriation with the triad of “flow, rupture, and transforming”, i.e. with the succession of agreement, break, and re-coding. But for Tricia Rose this model, developed on the basis of hip hop, is more than just a musical strategy, the cultural critic sees it as a veritable master plan for “social opposition”[ref]Both quotations: Tricia Rose, A Style Nobody Can Deal With, in: Andrew Ross & Tricia Rose (ed.), Microphone Friends, New York/London, 1994, p. 82.[/ref]. Some fifteen years down the line, however, the question to ask is: In view of advanced technical possibilities of appropriation—e.g. the boundless availability of downloadable music on the Internet or computer programs that allow you to mix music on your own home computer without the need for expensive, complex studio equipment—does this critical model still cut to the core of artistic considerations? Or is appropriating other people’s (musical) material now taken for granted to such an extent that at least the moment of break and, connected with this, the moment of opposition, becomes increasingly irrelevant and intangible? Increasingly intangible as we find ourselves in a universal and virtual universe of aesthetic formulations that we can dock on to almost at will—and without having to ask for anyone’s (legal) consent! To stay with the aforementioned analogy: Perhaps the musicians of The Velveteens fail to recognise the two ex-members of The Velvet Underground precisely because they have long since outlived their role as real, existing models and have been replaced by a digital flow of data à la iTunes and YouTube in which we can take the pleasure of immersing ourselves?

V. Back to the future

In conclusion I would like to touch on a project that the artist is still currently planning: For his exhibition at Vienna’s Secession Dave Allen is contemplating an installation that combines various aesthetic but also historical aspects with each other. To begin with Cozy Powell’s single Dance with the Devil (1973), an instrumental based above all on a drum beat—and the only single by a solo drummer ever to hit number one in Britain. Then there is the history of the laying of the foundation stone for the Secession, that is said to have commenced with three blows of a hammer; which is very much how Dance with the Devil begins. And finally the speeches held by Gustav Klimt, among others, at this “starting point” of the Secession. Dave Allen is thus planning to play Cozy Powell’s extremely dynamic hit as a loud canon in two or three rooms at the Secession. Moreover, he will write lyrics to the instrumental that will be based on the historical inaugural speeches, writing them on the walls of the rooms in German and English, possibly in typical Art Nouveau type. Finally, he is planning to perform a short play that links the legendary hammer stolen from Thor, Norse god of thunder and weather, with the hammer used at the laying of the foundation stone for the Secession.[ref]Description by Dave Allen in an email message to the author on 19/2/2008.[/ref] All in all, Allen thus combines a range of aesthetic formulations to create a new text that, in reference to history and present, pop and art, practice and theory, intertwines to form a multivalent mesh that tells the story of the dialectics of success and failure, of new departures and energy, of utopia and its profanation at different levels. With relish the artist quotes, twists, re-codes and aestheticises the supposedly “original” content of the materials that he appropriates. One texture merges seamlessly into another, the supposed boundaries, e.g. of high and low, prove to be constructions of days gone by that we can now safely forget, for example when we immerse ourselves in the thunderous rhythm of Cozy Powell. Do it!