Evaporated Music 3

Catalogue Essays & Reviews

Evaporated Music 1, 2 & 3

published in Art Forum Vol.56 No.2, New York © 2017

by Helen Hughes

"Evaporated Music" (at Neon Parc, Melbourne) presented all three installments of Melbourne­based artist Philip Brophy's eponymous suite of videos, marking the first time these works have been shown together. The three chapters displayed in sequence in an immersive environment with a monitor opposing a couch, a rug, and five speakers — each address a different way in which music is represented on video. While the visuals of the appropriated clips are left completely intact, Brophy — since the late 1970s a committed deconstructionist of cultural texts — gives the accompanying audio a complete makeover. His process is meticulous, resulting in perfect synchronization between sound and the action onscreen. Of course, the new soundtrack estranges the familiar visual content of the videos — the basis of the work's humor. A dedicated analytic project underpins the trilogy, one that is continuous with Brophy's parallel career as an art, music, and film critic.

Evaporated Music 1 (2000-2004) targets pop videos from the late '80s and '90s, when the genre approached the production levels and heightened artifice of Hollywood cinema. It begins with Elton John' s song "Sacrifice" and its highly stylized, intensely dramatic narrative pivoting around a fractious relationship between a heterosexual couple and their small child. With the song's repetitive, ascending-to-nowhere melody removed, and its chorus of "cold, cold heart" and "sacrifice" now rasped out in a bodiless electronic voice, John appears to be summoning the dark lord rather than crooning relationship advice to the unhappy couple. Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back to Me Now," Phil Collins's "Father to Son," and Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" are then subjected to similar treatment.

Evaporated Music 2: At the Mouth of Metal (2006-2008) syncs visuals of cheesy bands performing on late-'80s and early-'90s family-friendly television shows to Brophy's own imitation of extreme metal music. His rescoring of a clip from Saved by the Bell, for instance, causes teenage heartthrob Zack to croak lyrics like "Woman — some tarmac whore!" to the enthusiastic high fives and hair flicks of bandmate Kelly. Both these sets of videos lampoon the moral panic that beset middle-class parents of the '80s in response to metal bands' use of backmasking to layer their songs with satanic messages that can only be heard when played in reverse. It is as if Brophy enacts a type of critical (or paranoid) listening that lets him hear through the music in its original form — as if his versions of the video clips merely amplify what is already latent in the sound.

Comprising footage of professional and amateur string quartets playing in venues ranging from large concert halls to wedding marquees, Evaporated Music 3: Classical Corpus Delicti (2015) sits at a conceptual tangent to the first two entries in the trilogy, taking aim at the conservatory and the concert hall instead of popular culture and its music. In these clips, Brophy simply silences the musicians' instruments. As if in a highly theatrical cover version of John Cage's 4'33" (1952), all that remains audible are the sounds of their breathing, the rustle of their suits, the jangle of the beads on their dresses, the taps of their shoes, and the echo of the room in which they play — all of which Brophy has reconstructed in an exaggerated manner. But rather than aiming to open listeners' ears and minds to a more holistic array of sounds, as Cage sought to do, Brophy uses silence as a weapon to denude classical music of its transcendent, celestial aspirations and to ground these performers in a base, human realm.

In 2005, Brophy wrote that despite purporting to be open to all sounds, Cage and his successors have been "alarmingly dismissive of the noise of postwar American mass culture." The "Evaporated Music" trilogy may be read as the artist's riposte to this Cagean milieu, with the audiovisual complexity of '80s and '90s video clips cited as evidence.