What happens when an artist strains to be experimental or eccentric?
Many times, the result is boring, puffed-up art. That's the case with John Dowell, a Philadelphia abstract painter, who has organized a group called the Visual Music Ensemble.
Last night at the Hirshhorn Museum, the group performed "audio realizations" of Dowell's prints, drawings and watercolors, all of which were made up of amorphous squiggles and curlicues.
Rather than play notes, the ensemble, comprised of Dowell on piano, cellist Bob Campbell, percussionist Michael Dougherty and saxophonist Bobby Zankel, improvised from figures on the canvases that were projected by slides for the audience.
The idiom they used was neither jazz nor classical but obviously influenced by both. Zankel employed the gliss effects of jazzmen, and the whole group used the melodic and rhythmic fragmentation techniques of 20th-century European music.
Dowell told the audience of about 150 that the visionary portion of his work is more important than the aural. That was apparent from the ensemble's performance of 10 pieces, which, even judged by the loose standards of aleatory music, were gray, barren textures.
The music of chance is difficult enough for musicians of great imagination to bring off. Everything has to come together -- creativity, technique, inspiration and kinetic energy. It didn't happen last night.
Musicians of greater skill can do this better. Boulez and Nono have fitted aleatory methods into orthodox composition. Ornette Coleman has successfully used free improvisation with a small group of people.
John Dowell would do well to stick to painting.