The Auratic Experience of Here and Now: an analysis of the Aura of a work of art through visual and aural culture


Recently I was sitting in a performance of a piece called Six Marimbas by Steve Reich.  I actually love this piece; conceptually and musically, it all comes together for me. Yet for some reason, I found myself wishing I were listening to the recording of it I have on iTunes. It was being performed on a concert stage that was initially set up for three or four performances that afternoon, so the six performers, each with 5-octave marimbas were crammed off to stage left, hiding in the corner. This was slightly distracting, but I tried to focus. Was this supposed to be the authentic concert experience? These little distractions led me to notice others. Lighting that could have been better, the acoustics of the room were never meant to facilitate this sort of performance; I found myself wanting to go get coffee, with no fault of the composition or the performers.
I wanted to be in that place–that mental state where time stopped, where emotions were at their peak, where art is truly experienced and not merely viewed and not just heard. This is how I define the aura of any work of art. Does it arrest time? Does it take me out of temporality and allow me to engage and be fully present with an idea or an aesthetic? So much that it transcends time and actually creates its own space? Thinkers in both the visual art realm and the aural art realm agree on one aspect–that it is essential for the aura to be present in the “here” and “now”. However, outside of that notion, what the aura is, how it is reached, and what it means in terms of experience vary greatly. After all, one’s experience is essentially perspective–we can never escape our individual histories.

Multiplicity in Definitions of the Aura

At the time of the Reich performance, I was in the process of digesting Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility. Benjamin talks about the Aura of a work of art. The definition of Aura is far from a concrete, historically agreed upon, textbook answer. However, I think few would argue that a key component to Benjamin’s definition is the idea that a piece must be Authentic in order to have an Aura. So what is it exactly he is claiming a non-authentic piece (in this case, his idea of the reproduction) is lacking?
Even in the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of
the work of art–its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique
existence–and nothing else–that bears the mark of the history to which the work
has been subject…The here and now of the original underlies the concept of its
authenticity. 1
Given this definition of authenticity, and before we get into the differences between what and how the idea of reproducibility morphs between that of visual and aural works, we can draw the line that the “here” and the “now” are integral factors in the creation of the aura of a piece of art under Benjamin’s terms.
Another key factor in this definition is the idea of the distance between the viewer (listener) and the work of art. Benjamin states that a distance between these two must be maintained in order for the aura to be maintained. The collapse of time and space, in his view, is the collapse of the aura. This is illustrated by his example of the mountain:

The concept of the aura which was proposed above with reference to historical
objects can be usefully illustrated with reference to an aura of natural objects. We
define aura of the latter as the unique apparition of distance, however near it may
be. To follow with the eye–while resting on a summer afternoon–a mountain range
on the horizon or a branch that casts its shadow on the beholder is to breathe the
aura of the mountains, of that branch. 2

Further research into this idea of an atemporal experience of a work of art led me to a talk led by an Alaskan composer named John Luther Adams. A bit of background on Adams will inform us that he has spent most of his adult life in Alaska and has long been an environmental activist, creating musical compositions he links to the idea of “echo-location” and of a true and personal experience with nature.
In Adams’ talk, he continuously referenced the idea of creation of a space through aura using terms such as intervals, scale, tempo, speed, polyrhythms, tremolos, vibrato, luminosity, consonance, dissonance, opacity, texture, and so on.3 I could not help but see how most of these terms were in direct relation to that of an art historical context. More than anything, I wanted to understand it. I wanted to concretize it. The question that I posed to John Luther Adams was, “How do you define the term ‘aura’ in the terms of music, and how do you see, if at all, it is different from the art historical context and definition(s) of the term ‘aura’?” His answer, which was much more intricate, can be distilled down to a quote from his book Winter Music: Composing the North, where he says, “When we measure time we spatialize time.” 4
This space could be described and measured through the distance between the physicality of the score–the notes, the movements, the phrases, or we could examine this measured space in the terms Adams speaks of in the book as the physical length of the sound waves that are produced and their distance from origin to ear drum. The third way we could measure this space is vertically:
Though sound and time are materials of music, we often describe them in terms of
space. We speak of ‘high’ and ‘low’ sounds, ‘lengths’ of time, and compositional
‘forms’ and ‘structures.’ We also conceive of musical time in ‘horizontal’ and
‘vertical’ planes.5

It is in this space that Adams claims we experience the aura of a piece–in this idea of vertical space. In horizontal space, we are moving through time linearly. We are temporal beings, fully aware of the past, the present, and how they frame the future. Oppositionally, in vertical space, we become atemporal. We are stripped away of our temporal causality, as we are suspended in a space between our physical existence and the divine.
Above–between us and God–lies a “cloud of unknowing” that our understanding can
never penetrate. Between ourselves and the world, we must create a “cloud of
forgetting,” leaving conscious thought and desire below. In this timeless place of
forgetting and unknowing, we may begin to hear for that which we are 

Herein lies the discontinuity between the theories of Benjamin and that of Adams. All of this illustrates the importance, the searching, the significance placed on the here and now. Artists and musicians alike have been searching for a way in which to suspend the temporality of the viewer/listener/audience in order to facilitate a fully immersed interaction with a work of art. However, they differ in that the horizontal view of Benjamin’s Aura as opposed to the mandatory criteria of the vertical element described in Adams’ aura. To Benjamin, the aura is created when there is a linear distance between A (the audience) and B (the art work). He argues that the collapse of time and space is the collapse of the aura. In Adams’ view, A (the audience) must be surrounded in a singular moment with B (the art work). The collapse of time and space becomes the space of the aura. Adams’ theory would thereby authorize its own authenticity–through the atemporal experience of a work of art–and create an entirely new definition of Aura.

A rhythm invests places, but is not itself a place; it is not a thing, nor an aggregation of things, nor yet a simple flow. It embodies its own law, its own regularity, which it derives from space–from its own space–and from a relationship between space and time.7

In Henri Lefebvre’s text, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time, and Everyday Life, he explores the concepts of time that are created in the work of a rhythmic piece of musical literature, and specifically, what structures are used to create or represent different effects in music.8 Adams used many terms in describing Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing that are discussed in Lefebvre’s text. On the most basic and physical level, music is measured in time through time signature, (musical) measure, and tempo. Lefebvre points out, however, that even tempos are relative time. Terms such as vivace (lively, brisk) and adagio (slowly) are not assigned a specific number value, and over time, music has trended toward acceleration.
Adams uses many techniques to represent and discuss time and its seemingly linear nature. From the onset, the piece itself is obviously a flow of linear, temporal time– that runs approximately 65 minutes from start to finish. Other aspects that are used throughout the piece include intervals, tempos, tremolos, vibrato, bowing, and most notedly, polyrhythms. These different techniques play with the tangible and flexible nature of the time created. In the visualization of intervals, the concept of a measurement is easily determined. The word interval itself is implying the distance traveled between point A and point B. The concept of tremolos and vibratos work in conjunction. The word tremulous by definition implies a shaking. I see this in a very visual manner in that the note is literally creating a time and space by rebounding off certain set boundaries. The idea of bowing, I think is most interesting in terms of the percussive aspects of  a piece. With a stringed instrument, it is easy to understand the concept of elongating a note or a moment through the use of a bow. The elongation of a note on a percussive instrument has typically been viewed as a roll–many repeated notes played in fast succession in order to create the illusion of one long tone. They do, however, consist of a series of many notes. Bows have been successfully used in a lot of minimalist and post minimalist music on percussive instruments. So once where we had a note (moment) repeated to create the illusion of one, we now simply have one moment (note) drawn out in time and space.
The most interesting notion within this piece, however, is that within his creation of a linear time, the goal is to actually transcend it. How is it possible that the very creation of a work of art works in direct opposition to what it aims to accomplish? The goal of this piece is to arrest linear, horizontal time, and yet it is through this writing of horizontal, linear, musical time that we create the foundation to transcend it into vertical time.


When we measure time, we spacialize time.9

Adams speaks of an experience he had with a painter and the painter’s work. They were looking at images taken in the Antarctic, and Adams was trying to distinguish why one of the images was much more powerful visually and aesthetically to him. One of the images seemed much more vast, expansive, even though both of the images were taken with the same camera, same lens, same focal length. It became obvious to him that the only distinction between the two images was that the one had a small reference to the foreground, and it was almost as if it was laying a ruler within the composition–grounding the viewer in a literal world.
In Western music melody and harmony are the equivalents of figure and ground.
Together they constitute a kind of musical perspective, which evolved parallel to
that of Renaissance painting. In the musical textures of ‘Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds
of Unknowing,” I wanted to lose musical perspective, to blend line and chord into a
single sphere of musical space.10
He claimed it defined a definite space, whereas if a viewer were to exist in the Antarctic landscape, the scale would be incomprehensible. “This painting is so powerful because it creates a presence that demands our participation. It requires us to explore and discover for ourselves an imaginary space grounded in a remarkable natural landscape. I aspire to a similar experience in music.” 11
A key component for this creation of an imagined space is the loss of perspective.  Adams is blending the line and chord within his composition with the intent of blurring that distinct line between “foreground” and “background” so that the audience loses their firm sense of grounding in the real world. By taking small groups of short, melodic cells and laying them on top of long harmonic tones, Adams creates polyrhythmic phrasing that blurs our sense of metronomic time. “Figure becomes ground in dense clouds of expanding, rising lines. Ground becomes figure in the glacial movement of large harmonic clouds.”13


Adams states his definition of place very succinctly.
Space is the distance we travel between here and there. The space we inhabit is ‘place’.
Through patience and deep attention to where we are, we transform empty space into
living space.15
In a Marxist view, however, such with Henri Lefebvre, this term takes on a completely different meaning. In this sense, the term “place” is now tied to social interactions in a capitalist society. It would argue that it is much more beneficial to adopt Adams’ use of  place to discuss the arts. Whereas the space of a gallery or a concert hall is a highly social space, it does not solely exist in a capitalist realm.
In looking at  Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing and the other works of John Luther Adams, it is evident that he values his personal interaction with nature, specifically the natural landscape of Alaska, as his interaction and inhabitation in place. He is very closely tied to his interaction in the Alaskan landscape. This, however, poses a problem. Never does he claim that his compositions create place- that is through lived interaction with a place. This speaks most directly to the issues surrounding both aural and visual arts around representation.
If a piece of work creates a separate, reflective state of space, and yet we do not have the time or capacity with which to connect, how is an audience, then, able to inhabit this place? It makes the entire work of art itself a representation of a lived (and personal) experience with nature. So can the audience ever, in fact, transcend to this space between forgetting and unknowing? In my opinion, they cannot. John Luther Adams can only represent that of which he has lived, and the audience comes to the concert hall with their own personal, limited experiences, viewpoints, histories. Does this, however, negate the value of the work of art? I would argue that it does not. Maybe there could be issues around the originality and authenticity of the work, but that is not where I would assign value. It engages the audience, and ultimately, a discourse is created around all of the issues that are raised. The work becomes conceptual, and no–that is not a bad thing. To me, the work is conceptual as well as technically and mechanically brilliant. It is not, however, transcendental.


Is there, or can there ever be, a transcendental nature to a piece of art–musical, visual, or otherwise? Mechanically and symbolically, Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing does all that it should do in creating a disjunctured sense of time through the use of polyrhythms and tremolos. And yet is that enough? How is “transcendental” defined in the art world?  While many people love and respect the work of Mark Rothko, has anyone (who is honest with themselves) ever felt transcended by Orange and Yellow? Or is all of this just an obsession to be included in this super secret cult of the art world? Well, maybe if we look at it in a slightly less loaded way. I have had one experience with a work of art that really stopped me in my tracks, and it is far from any minimalist or abstract expressionist work.
I was in San Diego at the Museum of Photographic Arts. There was a show up consisting of classic photography, most of whom being from the f-64 group. The photo was not large in scale–it did not completely envelop a viewer–and the content of the image was simple. By no conventional means should it have taken me out of a causal, linear temporality. It was Ruth Bernhard’s Two Leaves:


Maybe I am channeling Benjamin when I say, trust me, this representation does not do the photograph justice. It was an image I had seen many times before, all reproductions in books and online, but nothing could compare to the incredible talent that producing this silver gelatin print required. I do not think, however, that this is the idea Benjamin was talking about in his essay. Benjamin was talking about something intangible that was the difference between an original work of art and a reproduction. In his eyes, a photograph itself must always be a reproduction anyway, seeing that the same photograph can be reproduced infinitely by the same negative. However, what I am arguing is that it did not matter that it was a photograph, or it could have been #24 in an edition of 25. I am saying that the skill involved when Ruth Bernhard developed that print was vastly superior to any printing press that would reproduce it in a book. The exposure, the contrast, the toning–everything was gorgeous. I, as a photographer, knew how much attention to detail had to go into the making of that print. I knew how hard it was to achieve such a tone and luminosity. I knew how many chemicals she had to inhale through developing the negative, developing the print, doing the sepia tone and then the selenium tone. I knew how many hours locked in a darkroom with a tiny red light must have gone into making the perfect print. And even though this image is a small, simply-lit photograph of two leaves, the beauty overwhelmed me. I have never before, and not yet since, experienced a work of art that abbreviated time like that for me.
Did I have that experience with Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing? No, I did not. It definitely does not mean that I do not respect the piece for its concept. Technically, it is a highly intellectual and thought provoking. Maybe this is where there is a disjuncture between the aural and visual arts. It is obvious that there is an overlap, but I believe certain people are wired more visually and others more aurally, so we understand, interpret, and represent concepts in very different ways. I was a musician from the time I was eight taking piano lessons throughout high school and into college, but I never learned well by wrote. It was important to me to be able to see the notes on the page. Conceptually, I see the space; I experience the space. But do I feel the space, and isn’t that the premise of the aura? So is this space really created? In Adams’ terms, and with my experience, no. Time itself was not transcended, my horizontal time was not augmented. There still existed the tangible world around me. There was still coughing from the audience, the rustling of programs. The world still existed within the walls of the concert hall.
Words are in space, yet not in space. They speak of space, and enclose it. A
discourse on space implies a truth of space, and this must derive not from a
location within space, but rather from a place imaginary and real–hence ‘surreal’,
yet concrete. And, yes–conceptual also. 17
What does this, then, say about the nature of authenticity within the constraints of the aura? Does a piece require an aura in order to be authentic? Is an aura only conceptual and therefore experienced on a personal, intellectual basis? Could this work be perceived as authentic and not auratic? Or auratic and not authentic? Benjamin claims that the here and now of the original is the root of authenticity.18 Yet translated into musical terms, the original does not hold the same definition of the original work of visual art. It could be said that the original score would be the original work, but that is barely relevant anymore because of the fact that most musical scores are not even hand written, and also in that what we could most similarly talk about is a performance of a score. When we get into the ideas of performance, however, we are strictly speaking of an interpretation of a work of art. Each performance will vary slightly, or maybe even drastically depending on the nature of the genre of music, from one another. Performers in music, generally speaking, are interpreters. This is why it becomes significant when the composer of a piece works with those performing it–because the outcome of the performance will be most like what the composer intended when the piece was written.
Consequently, the discourse around authenticity in music mainly has been centered around recordings of performances. Recently, I was researching John Cage, and an amazing discourse developed around the idea of authenticity in regards to his piece, 4’33”.  This is what the score looks like:

Literally, all performers are Tacet (Latin, meaning silent) for the duration of the piece. Performers walk on stage with their instruments, take their seats, sit in silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, get up, bow, and exit the stage. The idea of this piece is that music is everything. It can be any one thing you hear, from noises within the concert hall, to cars driving outside.
This idea is fairly basic until we add in the ingredient of iTunes. In a search for John Cage music, I found that 4’33” can be purchased on iTunes for 99 cents. Literally, a track of silence for the duration of 4’33” can be purchased on iTunes. It is apparently necessary to spend 99 cents in order to stop and listen to the noises in the comfort of your own home. An interesting fact in itself, but this now raises the idea of our obsession with authenticity and the original. Sure, some people out there have paid 99 cents for a silent track of 4’33”, but it’s a John Cage!  Why is there such a need for the original? This is not even an original; we are not sitting in a concert hall, there are no performers– there is literally no connection to the hand of the artist. There is just a name put on a digital file that happens to be 4’ and 33” long.
I am still going to argue that there is value in this mp3 version of 4’33”, in the fact that it creates dialogue. People still talk about this piece, it is still debated. Is that not an essence in itself? For me, that is hugely essential as a credential of value in works of art. This might go against what Benjamin argues–that the exhibition value of work, when it is spread through the masses, takes away the essence of the aura. And in a way it might. It could be my repulsion with the fact that 4’33” is on iTunes, but it sets up a whole new value system that applies an entirely different use value to the art. Discussion and engagement replace our obsession with the Original.
I started this paper with the intent of arguing that, while overlapping, aural and visual connotations of the word “aura” are very different. This on a broader scale would symbolize the inherent interconnected, and yet essentially different, nature between the two. Seventeen pages of arguing with myself later, it would seem that they are two languages (ironically, traditionally both named “universal”) that are basically telling the same story. I may not believe in the idea that a work of art of any medium actually produces a transcendental experience, but I highly value the fact that they try. Ideas and issues arise over originality and authenticity, but ultimately, that does not matter. I believe in viewing a work of art, and valuing a work of art for exactly what it is–a representation–a concept. And concepts create discourse. Concepts create engagement and interaction; concepts fuel further concepts. No matter what language is spoken, that is the aura of a work of art.


Adams, John Luther. “Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing.” Lecture, Contemporary Insights from San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, San Francisco, October 3, 2011.
Adams, John Luther. excerpt from score Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing, in Winter Music: Composing the North (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2004) 115.
Adams, John Luther. Winter Music: Composing the North. Middleton: Wesleyan University Press, 2004. 112-114, 162-164.
Benjamin, Walter.  The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility. In Walter Benjamin:  Selected Writings, 1935-1938, edited by Michael W. Jennings and Howard Eiland, Vol. 3, 251-283.  Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 253-255.
Bernhard, Ruth. Two Leaves, 1952,  Gelatin Silver Print Photograph.
Cage, John. 4’33”, musical score, published by Edison Peters, 1952.
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1991. 206, 251.
Lefebvre, Henri. Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time, and Everyday Life. London: Continuum, 2004. 57-59.
Music theory exercise, “Learn Music Theory: Polyrhythmic,” 2005. <; (Nov 18, 2011).


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