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From the Archive: Wordless with Art Spiegel and Philip Johnston

Nothing Concrete text
9 Jun 2021
24 min listen

Revisit this conversation between acclaimed cartoonist and author Art Spiegel and jazz composer Philip Johnston where they explore the place where music meets art, where the comic book comes alive, and where wordless art finds a voice. 

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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Ben Eshmade: Hello, and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Ben Eshmade and on this week's archive edition, we revisit a conversation between acclaimed cartoonist and author Art Spiegelman and jazz composer Philip Johnston. Let us explore the place where music meets art, the comic book comes alive, where wordless art finds a voice.

Philip Johnston: I had never really thought about the connections between jazz and comics. They're kind of bastard children of their art forms.

Art Spiegelman: One of the things I especially like is, when I was a kid, I didn't play an instrument. So I never got to go on the road with a band or anything, so I'm getting to do it. In the second part of my life. This is really meant to serve as an introduction to genre that most people don't know about, and to those who know a little bit about it to show you more work to enlarge that spectrum of work and what its implications are.

BE: Back in November 2016, Art and Philip brought their show Wordless to the Barbican. On this evening in the Hall, they transformed the solitary act of reading comics into a group experience. Spiegelman narrated, taking you on a journey through the history of the graphic novel from silent picture stories of the early 20th century through to the present day. While Johnston reacted to the images and history performing with his ensemble, The Silent Six. Around the time of the performance, I managed to hook up with Art in New York and Philip in Australia. 

How did you both become aware of each other's work?

AS: I had been trying to do a project that's got too big a scope to go into here, but it was going to be an opera about comic books called a Three Panel Opera. And I was invited to do it by some composers who, after I found out more about opera, I found out I didn't like their music, and that's pretty important in an opera. But then I was hunting around for somebody else to work with and throughout this whole process of hunting, a number of people, including John Zorn, and Paul Auster, were suggesting that I contact Philip Johnston. I did go, totally unrelated to this, to a screening in Prospect Park of Tod Browning's The Unknown and took my kids to it. And it had live music accompaniment, and I loved the music, it was so great. A jazz accompaniment. So afterwards, I went up to the stage and bought whatever album they had of their work. And I was going I should contact this guy and then found out or somebody that for months, people were saying, why don't you contact this guy. So it was all sent, my manuscript of where I was at, was sent to Philip, he wrote a letter back saying, I'm all over this like a cheap suit. And the rest, of course, is history. 

PJ: I think we should say we did work on Drawn to Death for five years

AS: We could never get it aloft. So even though there were nibbles, it never came together. But we kept moving forward. And I loved what Philip was doing. We stayed friends, but we didn't have a project until the Sydney Opera House invited me to come over to something a festival they have called Graphic in Sydney, which is where Philip lives and lived then, although not when we were first working on stuff together when he was based in the US. And turned up, they just wanted me to go to this opera house, four fifths of the way around the world in order to be interviewed on the stage. And I said, that seems like a lot of travelling to be interviewed and I can usually do that in bed or on Skype or whatever. My response was, Well, how about if you have an opera house? Could we use it, we can do something on your stage? Well, sure, what have you got in mind, and what I had in mind turned out to be Wordless.

PJ: First of all, I jumped at the chance to work with Art again. I think I'd always hoped that we could do something else together. And I also was familiar with a little bit of this material that became the backbone of what became Wordless. So then became this whole process of figuring out what the show was going to be, what the form that was going to take was, because we had to sort of invent the form as we were going along. And that was a fantastic process of discovery.
AS: It doesn't fit into any specific category easily. It started out by being invited into this Graphics festival. And that was a little bit after I had just written the introduction and acted as the editor for a Library of America collection of Lynd Ward's silent woodcut novels, and I got really interested in the form that I'd really been fascinated by in my teens and 20s and started looking around at practitioners of the small genre. But in any case, I wanted to present this in my lectures on comics, but it was too big a subject all unto itself. Thinking about it, researching it and then being offered a chance to do it with Philip was perfect because Philip had just been hacking away at doing the, well that's the wrong word, whacking away, let's say, not a hack - at doing new soundtracks for old silent films, which is, as I said, is what totally won me over to his work the first time I heard it, was now even studying silent film scores for - what is it a Master's or a doctorate that you got recently? 


AS: PhD. So since this thing, in order to talk about this genre, it required showing enough of it because it's obscure enough so that most people can't be expected to know anything. But in order to show it, it could get kind of deadly, I mean, I could leave a pile of books in the centre of the Opera House and say read it, and then we'll talk about it after you've looked at the 150 images or something. So what it turned into was taking these picture novels inspired themselves by silent film, figuring out how to turn it into something that didn't look too much like a film, but enough so that you'd be able to follow the stories and the music. The goal was to make live musical accompaniment in different styles for the tone and mood of each of these, something a little bit like a stand up comedy routine, with something also that's a little bit like, whatever, 13 or 15 short movies.

BE: Could you speak a little bit about the journey of the show? Where do you start and where do you end?

AS: Huh. Well, let's see. I pretty much start with what happened to comic books and how come they became called graphic novels and so on. And it goes back to this moment where comic books per se, were seen as like unsavoury. Like the comic strips that appeared in the Sunday newspaper. They were unsavoury because you weren't supposed to reading colour funnies, about katzenjammer kid anarchists on a Sunday. You're supposed to be reading something more wholesome, like the Bible or something. But comic books and comic strips until recently had no pedigree. How did like these wordless comics happens, the ones don't have balloons in them? And what what are the implications of that and that's a little too much to go into now, but it becomes thoroughly explicated in the course of our whatever it is hour and a half. And pretty soon it led to a very serious thing that could only be looked at a very close relation of comics, but were taken totally seriously by the cultural gatekeepers. This was seen as an astounding high art achievement and reviewed as such, in the same newspapers that wouldn't even acknowledge that they had comic strips elsewhere in the paper, because that was just for the semi literates that were subsidising the culture pages. To answer it really quickly, it goes from the beginning of comic strips, into the comic books and what happened to them to make them seem so unsavoury. And from there into silent comics that start pretty much I think the first thing we use is by HM Bateman maybe a great British Punch artist. And then the last thing we use is by me and in between we we traverse that particular century. 

BE: You're both kind of speaking in your own language, though, aren't you? 

AS: Yeah. But they're languages the crossover quite often and quite happily.

PJ: Yeah. It's interesting. I had never really thought before we started working on this project about the connections between jazz and comics. They were just two things that I loved. But since we've been doing interviews, people have asked us about the connections and and I think both of them they're kind of bastard children of their art forms, which have always been a little not so respectable. Though now, of course, in 2016, they've both become sort of overly respectable.

AS: From now we have to like piss on the carpets and get kicked out or something.

PJ: Yeah

AS: I mean, one of the connections is it's surprising how many cartoonists I know just listened to jazz as opposed to Kanye West or something... I don't know. That's maybe generational. I'm not sure. And also how, like a lot of the comics art that I really like has been inspired by jazz. I just finished this afternoon reading a biography of George Herriman and, and he comes from a fusion culture. And as a cartoonist passing for white he created probably the great masterpiece of comics, Crazy Cat, and Crazy Cat is just infused with jazz references, jazz lyrics, ultimately, man, it's made the way jazz tends to get made. Maybe even more so than the way we made the soundtracks for this very precise needs of Wordless, in that, he was obviously improvising from the moment his pen hit the paper.

PJ: You know, it's interesting though, one of the things that I've been thinking about recently, since I've been writing this article is how both jazz and comics seem totally improvised, like they have a very loose free, kind of wild, out of control improvisational feel, yet, they're not really because so much work goes into them and so much is about each artists developing their own language.

BE: There's also that sense of experience. It may seem improvised or that way, but it's about what's happened to you up until that point.

PJ: Absolutely. I think that's part of it, though. I kind of always pulled back a little bit from that whole. You have to suffer to sing the blues and I don't know, I think that can be a little bit over romanticised.

AS: Take it for me, I have to have to suffer to sing my blues. But it's very funny to talk about these woodcut novels, wood cuts are very arduous to make as improvisations, although even though there are aspects of it that probably are improvised. But with Herriman, at least on the one end of an extreme, he really was ripping around a very small theme and finding every possible way to make that theme deal with different things. That when the style, the styles shift to like accommodate the needs of the piece, and obviously, when you're working with a sextet, the music's gonna have some commonalities.

PJ: Yeah, I think one of the things about the music is that most of it is not technically what you would call jazz, informed by a kind of jazz sensibility, and jazz itself and again, in 2016, has evolved as classical and pop music have, to encompass all these different styles. Though, if you look back historically, again, to the work of people like Duke Ellington, and Charlie Mingus, and so on, that's always been part of what jazz is absorbing styles from Latin music and different cultures going all the way back to Jelly Roll Morton. Who, I guess had a similar background to George Herriman in a way. The music goes a lot of different places, stylistically, from tango to early jazz to avant garde 20th century music and 21st century music, to different forms of jazz, to something that's more like classical music. Part of it is encompassing all these different languages. 

AS: One of the things I especially liked is, when I was a kid, I didn't play an instrument. So I never got to go on the road with a band or anything. So I'm getting to do it in the second part of my life. And I really love it because these six musicians, we've now pretty much been together for enough presentations of this, so insofar as there is a kind of written score, they've now found ways to like, get under the radar and riff and every like piece somewhere or other. They don't usually get to play these things often enough to like learn them. Now that they're learned it's time to go off the reservation.

BE: Is it a fun thing to watch, Phillip? Or are you too busy involved with the music?

PJ: Well, um, both. It is a fun thing to watch. We are glued to a lot of sheet music, but there's not music through the entire thing. During the process of making and performing the work it's been, oh it's just been such a pleasure to spend a lot of time with these images. Because they're so rich, they really reward repeated viewing a lot, especially certain ones. The Masereels', I just I never get tired of looking at them over and over again, which is the same way I feel about silent films is that they're so rich, they reward repeated viewings. No, each time it's fresh, and as Art says the musicians are continually improving upon my score, and making it sound better than it did just the way it was written on the page. So that's always a fun part of it also. Plus, they're just such incredible, great musicians.

BE: What other sort of general themes do you explore? I mean, I wondered whether there's a certain emotional response to the music and to some of the images?

PJ: Well, I would say that for this, that's kind of a big topic. But the relationship between the work and our contemporary interpretation of it. Because of course, like silent films, we can never see a graphic novel, for lack of a better word, that was made in the 1930s, say, the same way somebody would have in 1930. We're looking at it already through a very diffused lens. Once you add music, you're supposed to, as a composer, you're generally considered responsible for communicating some objective meaning which is in the work itself. Yet at the same time, we know that we can't. People talk about expressing the artists intention, we'll never really know what that intention is. So there's always a delicate balancing act between expressing what you are interpreting as the intent of the artist and then adding your own experience of perceiving that work and putting that into the music as well. Which functions as underscore, or subtext or commentary. So it's a kind of juggling act.

AS: It doesn't quite answer your question, which is a fair one, which is, emotionally, some of them are funny. Some of them will make you want to slash your wrists, some of them will get you angry. Some of them are just like fascinating stories. Some of them are just visual, kind of, kaleidoscopes of amazing imagery. And there's certain common themes that go through all of them. There's like, probably one of the main ones is political. Because while we were doing this, it became obvious that the, even before Brexit, before Donald Trump, it was obvious that the world has been turning to shit. And so it deals with the world turning to shit a lot. It's true of this genre, especially. That a number of these artists were like hardcore pacifists, others were convinced commies at the time were that wasn't quite as pejorative, like right after World War One. Because this genre flourished between about 1918 and about 19, oh let's say beginning of the war years. And there is outlying work from before that and from more recently, but for the most part, that's when it flourished. And a lot of it was political. So it did deal with the 99%. And the 1% dealt some of them with women's fate in the world, it really does deal with life and death, even the really hilarious ones. So there's a gamut of subject matter. But it's a relatively narrow spectrum. There's nothing that talks about how cool monopolising wealth is like, I don't think we included anything like that anywhere. If there is one like that. But it does deal with anti war themes, with anti authoritarian themes, in very different ways, one from the other. And it also deals with melodrama.

BE: Normally, reading a comic is a personal experience, what do you get by it becoming sort of communal, sort of sharing sharing it?

AS: Well, it's more efficient than asking everybody to read it and pass the book around, because I'd have to move to London for a month. So I think that it offers certain possibilities. What Phillip said before, which is that man, I love looking at these pictures over and over again, each time, it's like the first time. This is really meant to serve as an introduction to genre that most people don't know about. And to those who know a little bit about it, to show you more work to enlarge that spectrum of work and what its implications are. But it is an introduction, you've been introduced to it. You have a sense of it. And both the music and the few words that I say in front of, behind or during something, will goose you along to get a better sense than if you're trying to like figure out this enigmatic thing from scratch.

PJ: But I also think there's something very special about getting a bunch of people in a room and doing a live performance with live music. There's just nothing...

AS: It's why we do it. Otherwise, we send around a filmstrip or a YouTube video or something. You know, if I screw up, I'm likely to get run over by two or three saxophones. The reason is, like it's really hard to describe the genre it's in because lecture makes it sound like oh, I guess I'll go and snooze and get some points toward my Oxford degree or something. But this isn't that. Nor is it really vaudeville, although it has some aspects of just like lowbrow entertainment, I suppose. The main thing is it's this strange hybrid that people seem to have liked. And I don't blame them. I'd love to be in the audience sometime and watch it. Can't figure out how to do that.

BE: I mean, that's really interesting. I mean, you both mentioned, you know, you both have a lot of experience in academia. But this is a show that I presume anyone can walk into, and they will take something from, you know, instantly reacting to the images and the music.

AS: Absolutely. It's varied enough so that like, we've had some kids in the audience who even like - well, I wouldn't recommend it. But they might have been glassy eyed because they were breastfeeding through the entire performance, I'm not sure. But it has worked on people I wouldn't have thought it would work with. Anybody even with a remote interest in either jazz silent film. graphic art or comics is going to, I think they don't need any other prior education to like, go flying through this.

PJ: Yeah, I think even if you don't have a background in the history of comics, or jazz and so on, it'd be, you have to be open to it. If you're one of those people who only wants to see, whatever is the latest thing on The Voice or whatever, maybe it wouldn't interest you. But most people, it seems to speak to them just as outside of definitions, just as a kinetic experience.

AS: In the course of an hour and a half, you're getting a what, like, an overview of these media and experiencing these media and you're getting about 15 stories. That's not a bad deal.

Philip tells me to stop trying to keep time with my hands, because I'll never learn how to do it. I think that I've learned a lot about music by having to like listen much more carefully than I could just have the luxury in other instances of like, Whoa, that sounds great. And I'm just moving to it. And in terms of my own art form, it's made me understand why I have language in my comics, what I do with language, when I add it in, even if it's by negative example. I tried a couple of things that are totally silent, I learned a lot about my medium for having to think this through. And I'd say also that it's literally kept me busy for the last year because one of the artists that was the most obscure in the cluster of people I befriended when we first started the project in...

PJ: 2012, I think we started... 

AS: Yeah, like what was that about getting older? Okay, 2012. And I got very friendly with an artist who was about 93 then, and we began to become friends. And I spent a lot of time with him and started seeing what he had been doing all his life, which was mainly painting. But it was kind of a serial painter, fortunately, not a serial killer, but he's painting pictures that were meant to be near each other even when they weren't quite narrative. And they got so interested that the piece that's in the, in the show has now been made into a book that's coming out in October in the US. And that's an artist named Si Lewen. And I would say, out of all the people shown he, he has the most obscure badge on him. But it's definitely worthy of something very other, although he just died about, I guess, a month or so ago. Just in time to see the finished book.

PJ: One thing that that makes me think about is just each one of these sequences of images by a different artists was kind of like a different nut to solve. A different problem of what the music was going to be, what the relationship between the music and the images was. And since we've done this, and I've spent a lot of time with it, playing it. Looking at it. Watching the reactions. I've just gotten so many ideas about things that I didn't do that I could have done. And of course, we looked at a lot of work that we considered but for time reasons, we put it aside. So one of the things I keep coming back to is maybe when we're done playing this all out, maybe there could be a Wordless 2. And we could put together another whole show of all the things that we rejected, and, and there have been opportunities to approach them in in ways that I neglected the first time around. I know that's wildly wildly impossible and impractical.

AS: No, it's not impossible. We talked about a few things that we never even got very far on, it would be for another time. And some of that sounded really intriguing. But I gotta say that when we first did it, I didn't think beyond, we're gonna do this thing at the Sydney Opera House and about whatever it would be a year. And I spent so much of that year planning this thing. And then as soon as it was over, we got standing ovations and everything, but then I would shit that's it, we worked for a year. It was about an hour and a half or a little over and...

PJ: I think there's easily an evening worth of Wordless 2. Anyway, it's something that I think about a lot. I'm looking at the work because I mean, you know, Art, I don't even, I don't have to even count up the ones that we already... Some of them we wrote the music for the whole thing and then had to cut them out of the show. Oh, there's just tonnes of material that we could go back to.

BE: Thanks to Philip and Art. And back on the 11 November 2016, I like many others enjoyed a powerful evening of words and images. A tour of the imagination with two absolutely compelling guides. I'm Ben Eshmade. Thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. Here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and theme series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts and if you can leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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