The desert is a place of solitude, purification, and initiatin. Paradoxical, it seems catastrophically lifeless yet is a space of spiritual life, a musterious arena of visual and emotional reversals - the ultimate uncanny. For Bill Viola, the desert is emblematic not of loneliness but of the "inner space of the mind no telescope can reach." Rather than an "empty, barren space," it is a space of pure possibility, where sensations are heightened until they merge in what Viola calls the "expansive inclusive view." There is no sense of ego, time, or thing in the desert, only of "deep connection." The desert, Viola reiterates, is "positive," not "negative."
Five new pieces of Viola's will represent the U.S. at this year's Venice Biennale, which opens next month, and his Deserts, 1994, premiered in the U.S. at New York's Museum of Modern Art in February. When I talked with him at the opening, he was in good form, in an open, expansive mood: composed, talkative, positively happy. Proudly, he explained the piece's technical firsts: his first to music (Edgard Varese's piece of the same name) recorded by an orchestra, Frankfurt's Ensemble Modern, for the occasion; the first in which he built his own set rather than using a found space. He was even able to create a pool of water in front of the room he constructed. He felt, he said, like an abstract painter, freely playing with imagistic variables. The desert, of course, is the piece's star, and he didn't build that - but he reinvented it as a mirror of his mind.
Viola cherishes the harshness of the desert, its jagged raw stone and hot shimmering space. Strangely urgent, it is a risky, dangerous place, full of rapid changes, an irregular perceptual terrain fraught with the threat of death. The desert seems to stalk one even as one stalks its sights. There is a strange tempo to its silence that Varese's electronic music seems to invoke, underscoring rather than punctuating it, while, parallel to and echoing it, Viola's protean, manic crush of images seems to embody it.
Viola clearly identifies with Varese, who wrote Deserts after a long sterile period, a twenty-year silence. The result of all those years of lost creativity and isolation - the artist like an involuntary hermit, in a desert of creative barrenness - was authentically revolutionary art: one of the first works of electronic music, one of the first works to incorporate found sound. Indeed, as Viola suggests, had Varese not been wandering a desert of his own emotional and intellectual making it is unlikely he would have been as revolutionary as he was (although there is no guarantee that surviving a desert will make one a saint of art).
Electricity was Varese's model, Viola explains: Deserts moves without nodal points, like those of the Western scale. Like the desert, this electronic music has no durable markers, for the sound drifts like desert sand, changing configuration with the slightest current of wind - of mood. Varese experimented with sounds, collaging them together. The result is an erratic flow of auratic hallucinations. The music is in perpetual transition; it has no goal beyond the immediate, particular sensation in its matrix of auratic associations. Sometimes moments emerge that seem more composed than others, that seem to transcend the auratic stream with a certain ecstatic anger. This dissonant work caused a sensation when it was first performed, in Paris in 1954. Today, in an example of what Adorno called the hypermodern effect, it sounds remarkably harmonious.
Varese actually imagined a visual accompaniment to Deserts - a visual collage to complement his collage of pretaped music. In a way, then, Viola's film completes his work. The Varise/Viola collaboration is Modernist and post-Modernist simultaneously: Viola contributes to a Modernist artwork (if to the composer's liking, we will never know) but also appropriates it for his own purposes. Yet he does so in piety and homage, maintaining the integrity of Varese's music, respecting its originality and unorthodoxy. …