The American painter Mark Tobey (1890-1976) is perhaps best known for having developed a unique technique, which he termed ‘white writing’. White writing is characterized as an overlay of swift calligraphic symbols, reminiscent of various techniques of Oriental calligraphy, placed on an abstract field – a prepared canvas consisting of thousands of small interwoven brushstrokes in various subtly different hues of white and grey. For him, this type of painting had a distinctly spiritual goal – it was a form of meditation, rather than action.
Tobey was well acquainted with John Cage, on whom he would be a great influence. In Tobey’s paintings and his interest in Eastern philosophy and aesthetics, Cage saw a way forward in his quest for an art freed from what he called ‘ego-noise’. Reflecting on one of Tobey’s exhibitions (where with characteristic enthusiasm he decided to buy one of the white writing paintings, even though he couldn’t afford it) he recalled:
“It was a canvas that had been utterly painted. But it had not been painted in a way that would suggest the geometrical abstraction that interested me, so it brought about a change in me [...] and in my relation to art, such that when I left [Tobey’s] exhibition, I was standing at a corner on Madison Avenue waiting for a bus and I happened to look at the pavement, and I noticed that the experience of looking at the pavement was the same as the experience of looking at the Tobey. Exactly the same. The aesthetic enjoyment was just as high... So, you have a change then in my view.”
My piece seeks to explore in musical terms Tobey’s idea of the ‘prepared canvas’ and the calligraphic following-of- the-brush that occurs thereon. By leaving a number of important musical decisions up to the performer, White Writing is also my way of engaging with some of Tobey’s (and Cage’s) aesthetic ideas.