Sarah Hughes ‘The Continuum of the Field’

The final essay in About Looking, a collection of John Berger’s writings published in 1980, is a short and generally overlooked text called ‘Field’.[1] Although first written in 1971, in this context one is tempted to read the essay in conjunction with the others that surround it. Such a reading places the essay within Berger’s prolific writing practice and in relation to his inquiries into a broader art historical context. More specifically, when encountered in proximity to Berger’s critique of painters such as Jean François Millet and Seker Ahmet, ‘Field’ can also be understood in relation to landscape painting.

Whilst this reading does much to enrich the preceding texts in the book, ‘Field’ references a landscape that Berger has himself encountered, and describes an experience that is distinct from that of observing landscape through painting. What Berger is describing is the act of encountering – he is writing from a position of being surrounded, whether it be a rural or gallery landscape. Whilst this distinction between observing a landscape through painting and ‘conveying an encounter’ may be slight, I’d argue that it is a significant shift, one that has led me to interpret Berger’s essay as a model for a research process. I’d like to explore this model with particular significance to contemporary open-form composition.

I first started thinking about this whilst I was co-curating a series of realisations of a score by Michael Pisaro entitled Only [Harmony Series #17]. This project was a collaboration between Jason Brogan and Compost and Height. It was one of the first projects we put together and involved collating twenty-one realisations of Pisaro’s score, as performed by musicians including Jason Khan, Julia Holter, Rhodri Davies and Steve Roden.  Each musician was given a copy of the score and asked to perform it for a duration and in a location of their choosing, on any day throughout August 2009.

It was whilst working on this project – listening to the realisations and discussing them with various performers – that I started to notice parallels between Pisaro’s score and Berger’s essay. These parallels went on to inform my own interpretation of composition, recording, reception and research.

Before going into more detail about the score I want to return to the essay and think about it in relation to Berger’s own encounters with images. His description of his encounter with a field, particularly the emphasis on reception and attention, will be familiar to those who have spent time looking at paintings, especially those displayed in large galleries and museums. I’m thinking of times when one is drawn to a specific painting, isolating it from all others because of a particular feature contained within it: the gait of a figure, a certain application of pigment, an unintended reference, etc. – any number of singularities that ‘accent’ the ‘field’ of common experience. This echoes what Berger recognises in the essay, where he describes ‘events’ that draw attention to the ‘field’ that surrounds them, yet crucially, he observes that it is one’s own awareness that gives special significance to these event. Berger’s essay presents and articulates a method for processing this type of situation in relation to other singular events, relating how the cognition of their reception relates them to a common contextualising field. As such, the essay can be read as a ‘frame within a frame’: an analogy for the writer’s engagement both with actual experience and its applicable relation to his engagement with images. This framing provided one of the first links I found with a certain type of contemporary composition that builds on the implications of John Cage’s exploration and understanding of silence and sound.

Interestingly, Berger also writes about his initial encounter with a kind of field-event in direct relation to sound. He describes an occasion in his childhood when the cluck of a hen in an adjacent garden, which he could not see, penetrated the raucous silence of his environment. In this experience he understood the noise of the hen as an event, experienced in a field which had been “awaiting a first event in order to become itself realizable.” He not only refers to this moment as an intense awareness of freedom, but also as an event that would enable him to “listen to all sounds”. This expanded conception of the field-event, particularly in relation to sound, further supported the correlations I found with the Harmony Series project.

Michael Pisaro’s score, on which the project was based, is part of series of compositions based on the structure of poems by various twentieth century American poets. Number 17 is based on Kenneth Rexroth’s 1974 poem, Void Only.  Pisaro’s score is typical of work produced by the international group of composers, Wandelwieser, of which Pisaro is a member. The associated composers are generally identified by incidental, experimental and text-based compositions that explore the role of silence, sound, space, place and location in music. Since its formation in 1992, Wandelweiser has developed and interrogated various types of open-form composition, and it is worth bearing in mind that the parallels I find between Berger’s essay and Pisaro’s score could be extended to a number of composers associated with the group.

Berger’s ‘Field’ and Pisaro’s Only are both demarcating the landscape, either through the framing of a text or the framing of a duration. They share a similar method of circumcision, and both recognise the event as key to the reception of the field. One short sentence in Berger’s essay offers an insight into how I associate the two. Berger describes the qualities an event must have in order for it to effectively draw your attention to the surrounding field. He tells us it must not be overly dramatic for you would “run into it from the outside”.[2] This complex approach to the relations between event and field – where distinctions are clearly made between the two yet the vantage from which the distinction is encountered remains immanent – is central to both the score and the text.

The score is written to be performed by one musician – and is the only solo composition within the 34 pieces comprising Harmony Series. This is a seeming contradiction. The full title is itself a juxtaposition of the singular and the multiple. The score’s instruction reads

“For one musician – Outdoors, or in a large, resonant space. For a long time. Sitting quietly. Listening. Once in a while, playing a long, very quiet tone”. [3]

This makes evident that the only opportunity for the production of harmony is in response to the acoustic landscape, whereby the performer harmonises (as one) with their surroundings. As such, the performer is assimilated into the field and anything more than a ‘long, very quiet tone’ would break its self-sufficiency.

A further parallel is to be found in the role of external references in both the score and the essay. Berger is clearly aware, and is cautious of, the relationship between the field he describes and its references to painting. He clarifies the association by suggesting that the ‘ideal’ field would apparently have certain qualities in common with a painting — defined edges, an accessible distance etc. yet he emphasises that such commonalities are misleading, because they “invoke a cultural context” which, if it has anything whatsoever to do with the experience in question, can only refer back to it rather than precede it.[4] This ‘non-preceding’ contextualisation could also be applied to the presence of the Rexroth poem in Pisaro’s score. It would be misleading to read the poem as an instruction for what the performer should do for the piece. The poem is there as a central feature of the score, such that it suggests that it does not function prior to, nor precede the realisation in any direct way. Instead Pisaro invites the performer to incorporate it, or interweave it, into the realisation, so that they encounter it over and again. The quoted poem’s presence in the score is complicated by this possibility of repetition or return, further distancing it from a purely preparatory operation. Just as what Berger describes as the ‘ideal field’ refers back to painting, the realisation of the score Only refers back to, but is not predicated on, Rexroth’s poem Void Only. As such, the exclusivity implied in Pisaro’s title does more than echo the title of the assimilated poem, denying it a role as an epigram. It asks, as Pisaro does in his comments about the score, “what, in the sum of things occurring now, do I hear, and how do these things harmonise themselves?” and, crucially, how can I express my relation to this harmony as a tone?[5] How does the composer or performer (as much as the painter or writer) situate his- or herself between the coordinates of figure and ground? Interestingly, Pisaro goes on to ask: “what effect does this have on my continued listening?”. This question again relates back to the reading of Berger’s ‘Field’ and his recognition of continuation[6]: He states: “the first event — since every event is part of a process — invariably leads to other, or, more precisely, invariably leads you to observe others in the field”.[7] As such, the continuum of the field, in both the essay and the composition, is central to how they are experienced.

A third parallel between Berger’s essay and Pisaro’s Only concerns the implications for field-recording. The continuum of an event in a field (whether it be a literal segment of the landscape or a sonic situation) highlights the problematic act of recording (or otherwise circumscribing) that field, either through visual, written or auditory means. If there is a parallel history of capturing a field of vision in the visual arts – where a landscape painting might be considered a form of recording – it could be argued that many of the essays that precede Berger’s ‘Field’ in About Looking function to rejoin these excised images with a continuum of discourse that activates them for individual and collective viewers.

It is arguably more difficult to capture the holistic, haptic qualities of a field through an auditory recording. Often, the objectification of duration, in and of itself, can be difficult to engage with. However, the proposed engagement with the field in both Pisaro’s score and Berger’s essay are indicative of approaches found not only in their respective works, but in that of other practitioners whose use of field-recording is extended beyond the capturing of sound or image. Berger makes this point clear and re-enforces the field-as-analogy in the final sentence of the essay which reads The field that you are standing before appears to have the same proportions as your own life.[8] This revealing conclusion underlines the notion that every interpretation of a field is impregnated with the predispositions of each viewer, performer, composer, listener or writer. It may seem obvious to state that what we take from the field and choose to interpret is dependent upon our own disposition, but there is a more significant point to be made concerning the mode of interpretation and the ability to create an emergent field. I’d argue that the reason field-recording is, in and of itself, problematic is precisely the break or cut that it makes in the continuum of events. In this respect, field-recording is additionally problematised by Pisaro in his dedication to Manfred Werder, a fellow Wandelweiser composer whose compositions often take the form of a simple framing of duration within a given context. If we turn again to Berger’s essay, we find what could be another analogy for how many contemporary composers approach the writing of compositions.

Berger writes of ‘events’ that:

“It is not only that the field frames them, it also contains them. The existence of the field is the pre- condition for their occurring in the way that they have done and for the way in which others are still occurring. All events exist as definable events by virtue of their relation to other events.”

Again we return to a strategy of attention. For those practitioners whose work and research is focused around this mode of observation or listening, the field-event is a complex, rich and affective space of enquiry.

Of course there is a danger in relating Berger’s ‘Field’ to field-recording, not least in the temptation to assume the relation purely on grounds of the repeated term. The word ‘field’ can mean many different things in a variety of contexts and it is worth remembering that Berger is not only talking about a specific field with a geographical location, but also an idealised one. Ultimately Berger’s essay is to be understood through the event. Its field is something that is both a space waiting for an event and an event in itself. As Berger makes clear, “this inconsistency parallels exactly the apparently illogical nature of the experience.”[9]

Pisaro alludes to a similar mode of engagement with the field when discussing the realisations of Only recorded as part of the Compost and Height project. The project featured in Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation, which includes scores by George Brecht, Yoko Ono, Manfred Werder and La Monte Young. In a chapter dedicated to the Harmony Series project there are a number of references to an interview between Pisaro and one of the book’s editors, John Lely. Here Pisaro talks about his observation that, at the moment of the realisation, the performer is “embedded in some process”.[10] For Pisaro, this embeddedness is not simply a process of setting duration and attempting to somehow harmonise with an auditory environment, but is also part of a wider process of research, interpretation and understanding of the wider implications of what, for Pisaro, is listening and, for Berger, is looking.

How we apprehend our surroundings is critical to attentive interpretation. Whilst we may apprehend a painting of a landscape all-at-once, we are surrounded, as Berger was, by the field. Pisaro invites the performer to put themselves in a position of being surrounded, framed by his instruction of choosing a location “Outdoors, or in a large, resonant space”. As such a space is unlikely to be apprehended all at once it creates a conceptually more complex situation. The frame-within-a-frame, of ‘Berger’s-Field’ and Pisaro’s Only both raise questions and provide solutions concerning the distinctions between what is apprehended as ‘field’ and what is apprehended as ‘event


[1] 1971

[2] Ibid. (Berger (2009), 196

[3] Pisaro, M. 200 , Only [Harmony Series #17], Unpublished, Music score

[4] Berger (2009),195-196

[5] [accessed 17 October 2013]

[6] Ibid.

[7] Op. cit. (Berger 2009),196

[8] Ibid., 198

[9] Ibid.

[10] Lely, J. & Saunders, J. (2012) Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation. London: Continuum pg 326



Berger, J. (2009) About Looking.  4th ed. London: Bloomsbury Publishing

Lely, J. & Saunders, J. (2012) Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation. London: Continuum

Pisaro, M. 200 , Only [Harmony Series #17], Unpublished, Music score

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