A confused after-hours club? No, this is more free-ranging: a marriage of sound, image and idea titled The Bell and the Glass by one Christian Marclay. The title refers to two Philadelphia icons, both of them cracked - the Liberty Bell and one of the museum's prized possessions, Marcel Duchamp's cracked-glass masterwork, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (the Large Glass), which stands only a few rooms away. Rhapsodically and garrulously, the film riffs on both while the Relche Ensemble plays an improvised score.
The surprise lies in how this conversion of disparate objects eventually flows into a river of ideas, and not one that sends you away thinking, "Maybe I'll understand this next year."
The project began in 2001, commissioned by Philadelphia's eight-piece Relche, a new-music group known for blurring and fusing genres. Though originally meant for one of the group's regular, formal concerts, the piece grew to encompass both the bell and Bride so specifically that the museum became an obvious partner. Only there could the piece be experienced near Duchamp's original.
The Relche musicians perform only at specific times. One is tonight: At 5:30, Relche will play a full concert at the Great Stair Hall and then, around 7, will adjourn to Gallery 177 until 8:30. Subsequent Relche appearances will be posted on the ensemble's Web site, www.relache.org.
The creator of it all is a tall, lanky, amiable New Yorker with intensely blue eyes. Marclay, 48, doesn't read or write music, but he assembles it from other sources somewhat in the fashion of a dance-club DJ, though often with live elements improvised within certain structures.
The film, which runs about 20 minutes but is looped continuously, is divided into two horizontal screens - almost exactly the layout of the two panels of glass in the Duchamp piece. Where Duchamp's glass encases a chocolate grinder, Marclay's film has footage of chocolate being molded into the shape of the Liberty Bell.
Often, the images are divided according to gender, men in one, women in the other, corresponding to a similarly intended division in Duchamp's original. Sometimes, the screens interact: A car turning down a steep San Francisco street on one screen becomes a descending roller coaster on the other. Men and women do come together, particularly in a clip of the famous Burt Lancaster-Deborah Kerr oceanside kiss in From Here to Eternity.
The musical element takes some of its inspiration from Duchamp himself, in the most direct way possible. Known as the father of conceptual art - who took a urinal, turned it sideways, and titled it Fountain - he is seen in documentary footage discussing how his Bride Stripped Bare was cracked in transit to an exhibition, but with such symmetry that he decided the piece had been improved.
Suddenly, Duchamp's vocal inflections are being aped by the instruments. Having been transcribed by computer technology, the inflections are the seeds of improvisation. During the cross-cut images of the Liberty Bell, sheet music of the 1917 Halsey K. Mohr song "Liberty Bell (It's Time to Ring Again)" flashes on the screen, only to be played, in part, by the live instrumentalists. Sometimes, the players just look at the screen and jam.
The number and variety of instruments will vary from time to time, but there will always be a minimum of two. The score, like the movie, like Bride Stripped Bare, has two distinct levels and can never be performed solo. And with the changing instruments and faces in the room, the music becomes a study in fragmentation, and it is never anywhere near the same from one performance to the next. And that, perhaps, is the central idea: How iconographic images change when broken, shattered or disassembled.
"The bell was at first such a common object that when it broke, nobody wrote it down," Marclay said in an interview printed in the installation's catalog.
Later, he points out, "There are many images of people touching the bell, putting their hands on it, as if this relic had a healing power. This touching reminds me of the touching of the wounds of Christ."
Though this marriage of the mundane and the mystical sounds irreverent, there's no indication that this is Marclay's intention.
"The bell and Glass are from two different worlds but are somehow related, and not just because they are from Philadelphia," he said. "Popular culture is so much a part of our lives that to try to ignore it when making art is ridiculous. . . . All forms of life infiltrate and become art all the time . . . Bringing these two objects together is a way to bridge different worlds and, in the process, reveal something new about each of them."
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at 215-854-4907 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Multimedia exhibition and performance
The Bell and the Glass
At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, through July 6. For show and performance information: 215-574-8248 (Relche) or www.philamuseum.org.