An Introduction to Charles Gaines's Librettos

Nicole Kaack

Manuel de Falla’s 1905 opera La vida breve opens in the fiery rumble of tam-tam and gran casso [concert bass drum], the martello piccolo and grande [large and small hammers] clanging in the polished simulation of a forge. As rendered in Charles Gaines’s 2015 work Librettos : Manuel de Falla/Stokely Carmichael, Set 1, the written score of these ominous notes is layered over the introductory words of Stokely Carmichael’s 1967 speech at Garfield High School, the activist’s emphatic rejoinder against the ceaseless labors of Black Americans ringing harmoniously with Falla’s implicit recognition of the laboring class. Materially discrete yet overlapping, Carmichael’s sans serif text takes on the suggested age of an ink-stained page, while Falla’s score is digitally printed onto the transparent face of an acrylic sheet. Gaines’s execution in printing undercuts this discourse on labor, the speed and automation of digital reproduction dodging his own habitual practice of meticulous drawing through extended effort. And more broadly, too, Gaines cedes from one revolutionary discourse in favor of another ; including these texts, yet claiming their arbitrary selection and relation, Gaines rejects an authorial role in favor of the indeterminate and multiple narratives emergent in these cultural objects.

An artist known for his conceptually-based works, Charles Gaines uses visual systems to investigate relationships between objects and their means of representation, confirming visual and verbal languages as producers of meaning. The last ten years have seen Gaines turn his inquiry towards musical language. “Librettos”—of which the Carmichael/Falla piece is part—suggestively pair historical texts and vocal musical works, coupling the original libretto with the lines of a speech or essay. The work itself is realized both in video format, with the composition playing over the scrolling text, and as the sculptural print depicted here.

Although emerging from different contexts and narrative traditions, Carmichael’s speech and La vida breve spark a lively—if variably sympathetic and contradictory—dialogue around identity and class inequality. Ultimately entreating African Americans to refuse to take part in the Vietnam War, Carmichael’s speech invokes the concerns central to the Black Power movement—racial pride, the de jure and de facto state of civil rights, and the tactical use of violence within and between nations. Also addressing socioeconomic and racial divisions, Falla’s La vida breve chronicles the tragic death of a young gypsy woman who is spurned by her aristocratic lover in favor of a bride from his own social class. The sixty years that separate these texts can be read in their different means of building and fortifying identity. Of Valencian and Catalan descent, Falla has been critiqued for an essentialist portrayal of Spanish culture which, even in earnest national pride, replicates an Andalusian style fetishized by foreign composers such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov or Mikhail Glinka.1 In the later context of Civil Rights in the U.S., Carmichael rejects precisely the outward imposition of identity and culture through a rebuff of European musical lineages—of which Falla himself is a part—advocating instead for the recognition of works by African American musicians and performers.2 In a heated debate, these ideological objects grate against their intervening decades, yielding fertile matter with which we may extrapolate latent correspondences.

Gaines has said that the pairing of these materials is motiveless, a decision limited only by broader classifications : a text on social justice and a classical vocal score. By relinquishing a tactical positioning of materials, Gaines releases his authorial control to the viewer’s perception. However, by pairing objects that carry complex material, cultural, and linguistic meanings, the “Librettos” also indicate the extent to which these materials are already overwritten by almost inevitable cultural narratives. Gaines’s work speaks to the temptation and creative role of well-trodden discourses, which are nonetheless troubled by the abrasive fit of unintentionally and imperfectly paired objects ; Falla and Carmichael prove to be less a union than a contrast. We are kept in the flux of an indeterminate position, our desire for a clear thesis—the artist’s prescriptive argument—tempered by the refusal of the materials themselves to cohere. In this ungrounded state, Gaines challenges us to perform a constant negotiation of difference, not necessarily other, but always between.

1 “Yet La vida breve exemplifies the picture-postcard style so maligned by Lambert (indeed, the final chorus of act 2, tableau 2 was used in a recent ad campaign on Spanish television to promote tourism in Andalusia).” Carol A. Hess, Manuel de Falla and Modernism in Spain, 1898–1936, (Chicago : The University of Chicago Press, 2001), 9.

2 “They teach ’em Bach, Vivaldi, Rachmaninoff, and all those other cats. . . . They say we are culturally deprived. . . . We got the Staple Singers ! We got the Mighty Clouds of Joy. We got James Brown ! We got Ray Charles !” Stokely Carmichael, Speech given at Garfield High School, Seattle, Washington, April 19, 1967.

Highly regarded as a leading practitioner of conceptualism and an influential educator at CalArts, Los Angeles–based artist Charles Gaines (American, b. 1944) is celebrated for his works on paper and acrylic glass, photographs, drawings, musical compositions, and installations that investigate how rule-based procedures influence representation and construct meaning. Gaines’s work is collected internationally, including at the MoMA, Whitney Museum of American Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. His compositions created by translating revolutionary texts into musical notation have been widely performed, notably at the 2017 Melbourne Festival, at the Brooklyn Museum in 2016, and the 56th Biennale di Venezia, Venice. In 1977, Gaines received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, in 2007 a United States Artists Fellowship Award, in 2013 the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, in 2015 the CAA Artist Award, and the REDCAT award in 2018. Gaines was the 2019 recipient of the Edward MacDowell Medal. He is represented by Hauser & Wirth. 

An Introduction to Charles Gaines's Librettos