• Philip May


Francis Picabia’s La Nourrice Americaine (‘The American Nurse’) was performed in its original form for the first and, it seems, last time in 1920. The pianist is unconfirmed[1] and the duration of the performance is unknown. I first heard it on LTM’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Avant-Garde, which turns out to be a more listener-friendly introduction to the piece performed by Peter Beijersberden van Henegouwen, clocking in at only three minutes and eight seconds. Tom Feldschuh’s LTM recordings, by broad contrast, presents both a ‘slow version’ and ‘fast version’, each lasting approximately twenty minutes. There must surely have been a number of marathon performances since the conception of the work, as well.

The rub and reason behind this stopwatch fixation (warning, spoiler alert) is this: the piece is not a score, but an instruction that also serves as a description: ‘three notes repeated ad infinitum’. There are no performance directions and the notes themselves are not specified. Indeed, only two things appear to be certain: the repetitive nature of the piece (it is arguably an event, occurrence, or experience as opposed to a ‘composition’) and its indefinite length.

Before I get ahead of myself, let me wind back a little to when I first heard La Nourrice Americaine and my reactions in approximate order:

1. 0-40 seconds. Interest. The first three notes imply an accompanying texture which could be added to.

2. 40-60 seconds. Doubt. Is this it?

3a. 60-80 seconds. Realisation. This might be it.

3b. Laughter.

4. 90-120 seconds. Doubt revisited. Something new may still happen.

5. 120 seconds. Acceptance.

6. Wonder. How much longer is there?

Interspersed between these approximate recollections were undeniably periods of enjoyment and absorption. The piece can be hypnotic if you’re so inclined.

My reason for listing these varying responses to La Nourrice Americaine is because I suspect that it is the audience’s reaction which held most interest to Pacabia. The two fixed elements within La Nourrice Americaine are complementary – certainly as far as any audience is concerned – provoking a host of reactions within a listener. Whilst I would wager that numbers 2, 3a and possibly 4, above, are typical responses, there is of course room for all sorts of fluctuating personal and nuanced reactions: boredom, frustration, euphoria, outrage, indifference and so on.[2] Furthermore, one could well assert[3] that any overall structure that arises is founded entirely on the to-and-fro relationship between the work in performance and a listener’s reactions over time.

The potential for a variety of reactions doesn’t end with Picabia. Both the context of a performance and the manner in which it is performed, including the three notes chosen by the pianist, have an impact. For example, Henegouwen plays a more ambiguous F-sharp3, G4 and E-flat4, whilst Feldschuh’s D-flat2, F2, E-flat2 is more tonally-grounded. Indeed, I wonder whether the loaded nature of three notes with a clear tonal reference would provoke agitation more readily from a listener than one without. Intertextuality is of course possible: C4, F4 and A4 could give the illusion of the opening of Pärt’s Spiegel Im Spiegel, especially given its popularity. A G-sharp3, C-sharp4 and E4 motif could allude to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. You get the idea.

One need not listen to La Nourrice Americaine now that I’ve spoilt the punchline. Nevertheless, it is worth knowing about for the very reason that Picabia, in his only venture into ‘composition’, puckishly loads three notes with a great deal of potential that is realised over the course of a performance, however long or short. Just as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey takes us from the dawn of man to space exploration in just under two and a half hours, so Picabia takes us from a state of unknowing to perhaps the end of our tether in a matter of minutes, maybe even seconds. And, like the piece or not, its molehills make a very big mountain.

[First published Feb 20th 2016]


[1] It seems to have been either Marguerite Buffet or Picabia’s companion Germaine Everling.

[2] At this point, of course, the inherent importance of the audience to the performance of the work draws a parallel with John Cage’s 4’33”.

[3] And I would.

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