Earle Brown with Alexander Calder’s “Chef d’Orchestre” in 1982

Revisiting Earle Brown’s Calder Piece

The late Alexander Calder is known for his monumental mobile sculptures that have dramatically established his practice as one that derives from motion, performance and theatricality. Further, the artist’s oeuvre reveals a complex and dynamic confrontation with influences from music and dance. Today, Cardi Gallery invites you to revisit composer Earle Brown’s “Calder Piece”, the legendary and rare encounter of a Calder mobile as an instrument and conductor.

American composer Earle Brown, who belonged to the close circle of New York’s famous composers such as John Cage, was approached in 1963 by a Parisian percussion quartet to compose a work for the group. In the past, Brown had been highly influenced by Alexander Calder’s sculptures. In the original program note, added to the score of “Calder Piece” in 1980, the composer notes that his famous “open form” compositions, used to be titled “mobile compositions” a tribute to the study of Alexander Calder’s mobile sculptures. These compositions are characterised by a set of fixed modules whose order is left to decide by the conductor who performs the piece. The instructions create compositions that are unique to their performances. Brown’s open forms sound different each time they are performed. It is here that the composer’s fascination with Calder’s mobiles comes into play, as each module presents a complete and independent entity, similar to the revolutionary composition of Calder’s mobile sculptures.

Work in progress (1968) at Opera di Roma

Alexander Calder: “Mobile” (1941)

The forms of the various sheet metal elements of Calder’s hanging sculptures are dictated by motion, real-time and space. Directly engaging with their environment, the sculptures gently float and move, continuously redefining the space they inhabit. A breeze of wind will set off the balanced elements in motion, initiating an intricate choreography of movement in which the elements move without domination and disruption. The light structure of the mobile presented itself as a counter form to the heavyweight and solid sculptures created at the time. Calder’s constructions made him the pioneer of kinetic art, and in many ways, composer Earle Brown strived to do the same conceptually. Brown’s creation of the “open form” has since its debut influenced many composers that followed within the American avant-garde since the 1950s.

“The earliest and still predominant influences on my conceptual attitude toward art were the works of Alexander Calder and Jackson Pollock…the integral but unpredictable ‘floating’ variations of a mobile, and the contextual ‘rightness’ of the results of Pollock’s directness and spontaneity in relation to the materials and his particular image of the work…as a total space (of time).”
Earle Brown (2000)

Original music score for “Calder Piece” (1967)

“Calder Piece” in the studio, 1967

Calder and Brown first met in 1953 at the artist’s house in Connecticut, and eventually, they became good friends. When Brown was commissioned by Diego Masson, the director of the Théâtre de l’Atelier in Paris, to create a new composition for the Parisian percussion in 1963, the composer developed the idea of a performance conducted by a Calder mobile. Once he presented the idea to the artists himself, Calder was immediately intrigued and began working on a sculpture commissioned for this purpose. In a constant search for opportunities to collaborate with artists outside the realm of pictorial or sculptural art, Calder’s interest in the project came as no surprise. Brown’s proposition echoed the performative and theatrical nature of the artist’s sculptures.

Fittingly titled “Chef d’Orchestre” (1966), french for conductor, the construction of the bright red standing mobile had to correspond to the intended reading of the sculpture. The instructions for the musicians to perform “Calder Piece” were complex. Once in equidistant position from the mobile, the four percussionists had to activate the mobile by playing on it and thus setting in into full motion. Then, the musicians were instructed to return to their instruments and imagine the visual of the mobile superimposed over the score, performing the parts of the score that correspond to their reading of the sculpture’s position.

“Calder Piece” in motion

“Calder Piece” symbolises the vision of music being created in real-time. Its basic concept was certainly not unique, post-war composers such as Mauricio Kagel and Iannis Xenakis were known to appropriate elements of other Modernists to conceptualise their musical scores. At times even explicitly utilising the term mobile or stabile when creating the score or defining its concept.

Since its debut in 1967, “Calder Piece” has been re-performed various times, such as at the Centre Pompidou in 1983, the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2015, or most recently in 2016 at the Calder Foundation in collaboration with the Earle Brown Music Foundation and performed by the Talujon Percussion Quartet.

Cardi Gallery invites you to watch the recorded re-performance of “Calder Piece” at the Tate Modern in 2015 available to view on their website (https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/alexander-calder-848/performing-sculpture-earle-browns-calder-piece), as well as the performance by the Talujon Percussion Quartet in 2016 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GSUqN_C8Vw&feature=youtu.be).