Milan Adamciak Thinking and Seeing Sound, Making the Body Resound

16. 11. 2016

In 2012 and 2013 a small Košice publishing house, Dive Buki, launched two publications presenting the work of the musicologist and intermedia artist Milan Adamčiak – Archív I (Expo) / Experimentálna poézia 1964 – 1972 and Archív III (Nôty) with the subtitle Notácie a grafické partitúry (Notations and Graphic Scores). Michal Murin, who has worked with Milan Adamčiak for many years and is the curator and promoter of his artistic legacy, initiated and edited both books. Michal Murin is successively publishing all his accessible works from public and private sources. His is not then just editorial activity, but literally an act of rescue.

The Archive
Adamčiak’s archive is dislocated, uprooted and scattered. It has no permanent home nor any single owner. One of the reasons for this state is that on various occasions Adamčiak gave away or sent away a large part of his output, and a second reason is his eviction from his apartment, homelessness and subsequent departure from Bratislava. This means that we can think in terms of an archive essentially only from the point of view of authorial typology, and it is typology that is the basis for the ordering of Adamčiak’s work in the two books. I shall focus on the second of these and look at the aspect of graphic scores and notations with a direct impact on the field of fine art. Murin’s text is an introduction to the problem of the graphic scores, and is followed by an interview and two essays by Milan Adamčiak himself. Most important from the point of view of categorisation of the “archive” is the typology of graphic scores, which respects the author’s intention and is in each case introduced by a short text, explanatory note, story.

Two serious questions arise here. The first question is connected to the record of happenings/actions and the absence of photographic documentation. Even where these actions were documented, the records were made on the basis of its collaborative character, by someone else (for example in the case of the action of Alex Mlynárčik) and were not a result of. Adamčiak rejects the method of the photographic document, butthis does not apply to notation in an authorial manuscript,  and the writing of actions into the surfaces/ space of the score. When the score is at the beginning of the process and the action itself is the object of the author’s imagination, the score then anticipates, delineates and opens the field for possible interpretation of the initiating idea of the particular action. At the same time the score is an independent art work. Reading it stimulates a synesthesic phenomenon – a music that may be perceived with the eyes and mind. Adamčiak is fascinated by the the composition of a piece into space. The organisation of the graphic signs evokes the crystalline structures and architecture of sounds. The principle here is the poetics of the open form, the composition process as something never-ending, which became a permanent attribute of Adamčiak’s work. The second question relates to the often needlessly emphasised eclecticism and copying (Jozef Cseres), to which one might add related and definitely more productive characterisations: machinism, bricoleurie, amateur expression. Association with a “Do-It-Yourself” ethos is actually apt because Adamčiak’s approach to art is in principle based on reception and interpretation – imitate, honour, shift, hommage.

The Score
The score as a graphic medium carried by paper deserves a certain specific sensibility. Digitalisation meant that in the conception of Murin’s edition there was a change in the sense of a basic departure from respect for the scale, the signature, and also – it appears – the producer did not bother himself much with the issue of the legibility of the works reproduced. In the introduction to the book Murin argues that the aim is to create a catalogue of scores that would retain their artistic value in any kind of reproduced form. Originally the reproducibility of Adamčiak’s graphics was made possible by a copier, however, which is rather different from today when it seemingly has to be reduced in size by several magnitudes and a scarcely readable icon centred in the middle of a square format page. The paper aesthetic is in fact an essential aspect of a generation of conceptually orientated artists – Július Koller, Peter Bartoš, Ľubomír Ďurček, Dezider Tóth, Rudolf Sikora and others. Of course, graphic scores are not bound to their bearer, in this case paper, in their capacity as guides to further activities, but when we are looking at the very first edition of a complete works, the approach chosen appears to be highly problematic. It is not only that when we read the scores the sense of scale is lost, but that there is a failure to convey the variability of the position of the graphic sheet, the colour scheme and the technique chosen by the artist: drawing (in pencil, coloured inks, coloured pens) stamp-etching, collage and suchlike. Scores with a complicated structure and spontaneous sketches are set side by side without more precise differentiation, and annotation runs up against conceptual analysis of musicianly and instrumental variations. The advantages of a low-priced low-budget publication can easily backfire, by compromising the potential of the visual experience of the individual scores and restricting their capacity to communicate. Works that are now in the collections of the Slovak National Gallery and several important works from Jiří Valoch’s private collection (today the property of the National Gallery in Prague), have not been included in Murin’s edition. We will have to wait for a monograph that will make up for these shortcomings.

In the countries of the former Eastern Europe, experiment in music cannot be completely separated from the political contexts formed by socialism as a total social experiment. Scientific socialism inspired cultural circles to progressive futurological utopias. With the rise of Khruschev after the death of Stalin came the period known as the “thaw”, making a relatively free approach to art possible. The prediction of future technologies fired the artistic imagination from the end of the 1950s. There is no doubt that artistic experiment drew on the technological advances supported by state policy and set a course for apparently unlimited possibilities. On the other hand, the social situation in Czechoslovakia after 1968 and the “normalisation” directives at the beginning of the 1970s completely removed progressive experimental work from public discourse. This stifling political development left its mark on the work of Milan Adamčiak as it did on the whole generation of progressive artists striving for a new international avantgarde.

The international avantgarde impulses of the 1960s and 1970s together with the mapping of the relations between visual art and experimental music have been the theme of quite a recent exhibition entitled Sounding the Body Electric, Experiments in Art and Music in Eastern Europe, 1957–1984 in the Sztuki Museum in Łódź (2012). It was curated and conceived by David Crowley and Daniel Muzyczuk, with the emphasis on the reconstruction, or remake, of two important words of the end of the 1960s – Spatial-Musical Composition (1968), by Teresa Kelm, Zygmunt Krauze and Henryk Morel, and the production Just Transistor Radios (1969) by Krzysztof Wodiczko and the composer Szabolcs Esztényi. One positive aspect of this type of exhibition is that it gives social-historical context for an understanding of progressive art from the former “Ostblok”. Although Crowley’s approach is tinged with nostalgic technophilia and the utopianism of those years, this did not stop him including the fluxus orientated work of Milan Knížák in the exhibition, as well as the graphic music of Milan Grygar and finally also scores based on the aleotoric principles of Milan Adamčiak. In an interview for the magazine ARTMargins, Crowley mentions Adamčiak as an East European expert on and continuer of John Cage. The two only actually met as late as 1992 on the occasion of the presentation of Cage’s scores in the Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava. Adamčiak himself in a conversation with Murin admitted that his knowledge of Cage’s work was pretty fragmentary. The contacts of Adamčiak with the Polish composer and creator of graphic scores Bogusław Schaeffer are relatively little known. Shaeffer’s scores fulfil the idea of poly-versional music, which aimed to equalise the roles of composer and musician equal. These compositions are based on the principle of unpredictability and potentiality. They leave open possibilities for performance of the score. The score represents a field of permanent conflicts, clashes, actions, reactions, fusions and replications. This field is like a battery charged with dynamic energy. Like a cell in a circuit, the graphic sign in the score is waiting for the impulse that will release sounds in accordance with the proposed instructions and given spatial relationships in the direct interaction of performers. Many of Adamčiak’s scores initiate and paraphrase electric circuits, mechanical tools, and playing machines (starting with chess and ending with the gramophone or hi-fi tower). Adamčiak’s works therefore distantly recall the inventions of the Pressburg court councillor Wolfgang von Kempelen. His chess machine or talking machine, using the phonetics of vowel sounds, corresponds with the principles of inventiveness, playfulness, improvisation.

Desubjectivised Poetry
The performative and acoustic dimension of type-writer type, the striking of the keyboard, the sequentiality of the type, their overlapping and noise, and the integrity of the composed pictorial field, are perhaps what most convincingly characterise the contours of his difference. In his early type-writer compositions we already find the elements of musical principles, references to the acoustic side of liberating sounds, and feel in them the futuristic experiments of Filippo Marinetti and Luigi Rusollo. His work with the texture and structure of Eurasian languages on the other hand brings him close to Velemir Khlebnikov. The visual properties of the stamp and type-writer type are determined by the rhythm and intensity of the strikes. The determining factors are the randomly chosen alphabetical code, the pre-selected combination of type, and their permutational use in the graphic realisation. We can read the arrangement in space, density and overlap of stamped type as the notation of acoustic processes and at the same time as a guide to their interpretation. The problem of impulse (point, strike on the keyboard of a typewriter) and process (the line developed in time) gradually led Adamčiak to regard rasters as scores with their own rhythmic and acoustic behaviour. With the realisation of this idea he actually finds a new field of expression, and in this way differentiates himself from concrete poetry, which by the end of the 1960s was in danger of mannerism. Adamčiak’s interest in the semantic side of the poem was only marginal, situational. His “selective texts”, “pa-texts” and “pages from a magazine” prefigured the strategies of conceptual writing. Despite the artist’s paradoxical isolation we could identify and develop more possibilities of the contextualisation of his output: the sound and visual poems of Katalin Ladik, a Hungarian artist from Novi Sad, the intensely ironic visual poetry of the Croatian poet Vlado Martek, the acoustic pieces of Austrian poet Gerhard Rühm and so on, and so on. Many people have called Adamčiak an intermedia artist. But what does that mean? It is high time to ask ourselves what inner logic connects a poem, a musicological work, composing and the creation of objects or installations. Given the range of sources from which Adamčiak draws inspiration and creative potential far beyond the limits of their political and social views or fashionability, the answer seems plain. When we look through the large literature on the international Fluxus movement and leaf through anthologies of experimental poetry and graphic music, we find a quantity and great variability of overlaps: phonic poetry, auditive poetry, conceptual poetry. All the same, something sets Adamčiak apart and means that these influences do not define him. Nor is it just a matter of chronology, the avant-garde progress that left Adamčiak, cutting his little paths in the lonely Slovak woods, not far behind but still round the corner. The reason was also the syncretism and performativity that are inseparable attributes of his extensive output. For this reason it is a good thing to emphasise certain very specific features which distinguish this author from earlier influences and define his position both in international context and in relation to the strong line of Czech experimental poetry.


Daniel Grúň is an art historian and curator.


Silhouettes III for any twelve instruments, 1967 drawing on paper, archive of Michal Murin.

Milan Adamčiak Mosaica per organo, archi e bPercussioni / Mosaic for borgan, arcs and percussions, 1968.

Configurations for Large Orchestra, 1970. Both reproductions: drawings on paper, archive of Michal Murin.

Concerto per pianoforte ed orchestra da camera /Concert for piano and chamber orchestra, 1970, drawing on paper photo: archive of Michal Murin. 

Something for John Cage, an exhibition of Milan Adamčiak in the Design Factory (curators Michal Murin, Katarína Hrdá Trnovská), 2012 photo: Michal Murin.

System Score, 1970 Impulsi a due per strumenti melodici / Impulses in two for melodic instruments, 1979. Both reproductions: drawings on paper, archive of Michal Murin.

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