composer, improviser, audio artist, researcher
composer, improviser, audio artist, researcher
For several years I've been intrigued by David Bohm’s idea that the order of one's perception must match the thing perceived. For example to listen to music we try to enter into the field of music in our perception of the phenomenology of sonic forms. By the same token artists working in the fields of climate change and adaptation are faced with ecosystem complexities. In my view such complexities require specific ways of thinking, at least at the research phase. The upside of this is that new doors open at every turn, the downside being that you risk losing focus at the production phase of a given arts project. I’ve taken full advantage of the complexity of the field - what began as a fairly straightforward and simple data sonication concept within the realm of the sonic arts has grown arms, legs, wings and roots, spreading out into anthropology, ethnography, oral and social histories, agricultural production, to name the most prominent fields.
I’ve also had some new ideas. Between the open space of the gallery (or site-specific location), which will usually accommodate several dozen listeners, and the igloo/climate research station hybrid (in-progress), designed for three or four listeners, sits the option of a small intimate individual listening booth. While researching shamans and religion (see Alice Beck Kehoe) I came to a fuller appreciation of the role of shamans in their communities and the physical setting of communal gatherings and rituals. I also learned about ‘the shaking tent’, a cylindrical lodge or tent, a bit like a small wigwam. These are widespread among the Ojibwa, Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi), Cree, Penobscot and Abenaki. A shaman, paid by a client, would construct his or her tent and enter it at dark. Singing and drumming summoned the shaman's spirit helpers whose arrival is signified by animal cries and the shaking tent. These spirit helpers were used in curing and anti-sorcery.’ I'm not chasing a trivial idea here but seek to examine the comparative merits of indigenous versus scientific environmental knowledge.
Returning to data sonification per se and at the same time bringing it all back home I’ve decided, following my conversations with Chris Fremantle, to take a closer look at river level monitoring stations on the Annan in Dumfries and Galloway. From what I can gather there are three such stations on the Annan. I'll explore the possibilities of sonifying the three data streams (in near real-time) simultaneously, then to render the whole in the context of a sound installation. It's not quite a three body problem but given the perceptual difficulty of separating out two simple sound streams such modelling will require careful planning and design. As levels rise and fall in response to a period of spate for example, it’s possible that the relationships between the levels at any given point in time (or short window) will assist in an understanding of flood levels. There is anecdotal evidence of people upstream contacting businesses downstream by telephone to warn them of rising levels. The downstream person then moves basement goods to higher shelves. Simple adaptation. It struck me that there’s another theme here to look at, that of carefully designed alarm systems, sounds in the public domain, to let people know of imminent flood levels. But something less obvious and dramatic than a World War Two siren.
Artist and film-maker John Wallace told me about how farmers are quietly adapting to changing climatic conditions over the years, for example by moving animals further up the hill, away from flooded or boggy land, with cost implications over time for fencing and perhaps for insurance. If we take a generous view of sonification and overshoot clever digital models (I’ve already argued in the past that field recordings cannot tell us much about the state of natural environments, at either the quantitative and qualitative levels), we can see how strands of oral history, carefully rendered and supported by textual, cartographic and photographic documentation, will afford far more than just an interesting back story to the main sonification narrative. There is much to be had from exploring such adaptations, for example, on the land along the Borders rivers, in particular the Tweed and Teviot, near where I live. This will involve gathering and ‘sonifying’ stories, treating knowledge as data, from one perspective. Following on from the strands of ethnographic investigation undertaken in 2013 as part of Working the Tweed, this project invites a wider look at other regions in Europe and further afield.
In a recent conversation with Chris Fremantle, a leading thinkers, producer and researcher in the field of eco-arts, I learned about the work of Sacha Kagan, a German academic who in turn led me to Edgar Morin’s ideas around complexity and complex thought with respect to understanding civilisational issues. Both are worth delving into - some of Kagan’s work I can be accessed as pdf downloads.
Complexity in the field of research has nothing to do with complexity in the formal properties of a creative outcome. To conflate one with the other is a self-defeating misunderstanding. You don’t have to make complex or difficult work to deal with difficult themes or topics. And complexity isn’t the same thing as difficulty. The etymology would suggest that something complex has several strands to it, woven together, as opposed to something simplex or single-stranded.
Because critical investigations into civilisational issues such as climate change, sustainability and adaptation will converge upon the genesis and growth of eco-systems, such investigations will often be extremely complex and specialised, beyond the understanding of many artists, requiring the mediation of scientists, engineers and other specialists. Hence the establishment of the many successful arts/science collaborations that we see around us.
It’s crucial that artists in particular understand the complexity of the issues facing us with respect to climate change, sustainability and adaptation. Otherwise we risk taking an easy route towards reductionism, a lossy compression of important ideas, facilitated in the current era by the culture of browsing or snacking on shallow understandings promulgated through mainstream or social media headlines and snippets.
I’ve observed that the language we use to discuss and unpick these complex matters is problematic in some quarters. I see no need to use ‘big’ words if small words suffice, but if we need new terms (big words) to describe new or complex phenomena such as those found in eco-systems and eco-systems thinking, then surely we should make efforts to tackle the new language.
aha - radio, but especially Raadio Zizkov!
Radio art (transmission art, audio art) is of great interest to me because of the role of sympathetic magic in its mechanisms. Just as radio art is concerned with transmission, disarticulation, metamorphosis and mutation (all processes of alchemy it should be noted) rather than communication and closure, so sympathetic magic, the art of changing, doing things, producing things ex nihilo, deals with contiguity, similarity and opposition, to which we could add the charisma of absence and the hypnotic powers of sounds unbound from their sources. When you bring the two together, radio art and sympathetic magic, you have a playground for people like me with interests in language, linguistics, speech defects, ritual, cults and sects, fabrications, semiotics, dysfunctional communication systems, non-linear storytelling, psychological aberrations and the deep history of radio.
New work will appear at various intervals on Soundcloud, beginning with Hoorspiel, of which more soon. But for now, please acquaint yourself with Shaman Hamish, who overcomes his personality disorders and fleeting social insecurities to challenge the doxosophers of materialism.
What have I done recently? After a period of research and experimentation, bit of a troll around the block, I've re-confirmed my commitment to working on electroacoustic composition and trying out new performance strategies. Sometimes you need a break to find out what it is that you really want to pursue. I've been listening to a lot of new music and old, especially some early work by Michael Northam on Bandcamp - that's the stuff at the bottom of his release page (https://michaelnortham.bandcamp.com). I knew of Michael's work back when he released it so it's been great to catch up on some very fine examples of what I think good composition entails.
I also wanted to go back to the roots of musique concrète, to the techniques and methods developed on reel-to-reel recorders. This is less of a retro-fetish (though who can resist those angry cat's faces of the 10" reels?) than a genuine desire to fill in a large gap in my understanding of the music that interest me. As well as revisiting Pierre Schaeffer and his cohorts, along with Michel Chion whose work on film sound is particularly recommended, I took time to study the work of a later generation of mainly French artists, Jérôme Noetinger and Lionel Marchetti for example. Marchetti writes very well on musique concrète by the way, no easy feat. Having taken these machines for granted as a kid and having never got over my indecision to secure a knockdown price on a Studer machine about ten years ago I've now invested in a Revox B77 MkII. The seller is dealing with a couple of repairs but I look forward to owning a healthy machine and spending many hours in the studio learning a) how to play this beauty as an instrument in its own right and b) figuring out how to best use it to further articulate, modify and transform the four stereo channels of electroacoustic sound streams that my max/msp instrument generates.
On Thursday 16 November, 2017, John Wallace an I hosted a public event at the Stove in Dumfries. Apart from thoroughly enjoying my first visit to this groundbreaking community and arts hub, we had great pleasure in talking with the visitors who dropped in throughout the day to participate in the discussions, share expertise and offer feedback on the role of artists in creating new understandings of climate change, and on climate change data sonification more specifically. Thanks you to the young journalists and students, to the hydrologists and seasoned academic and environmental campaigners. We look forward to a more substantial public engagement event at the Stove in February 2018.
100 High Street
I’m not long back from the Sound + Environment 2017 conference at the University of Hull. The conference was a gathering of many of the leading figures in the field of sound art research and practice, with a particular focus on art and science collaborations. With excellent technical support from some of the students and technical staff, I installed a first test and evaluate model of if we do nothing in their very new and shiny state-of-the-art studio.
I set up pairs of loudspeakers at three stations around the room, with chairs facing, then created a social space in the middle. This offered visitors some variety in how they might listen to the work and created a space for discussion. This first model, a mapping of rising CO2 and glacier ablation (falling ice mass/area) from 1880- 2050, runs for approximately 30 minutes. I looped the piece every hour, leaving time for reflection and debate.
The conference was running paper sessions in parallel, along with multiple simultaneous installations, concerts, keynotes and other events, so the pattern of visitors was erratic. At one point I had people in the space to near capacity, then they had to dash to some other event. Although this was a testing and evaluation event and obviously subject to the conditions of a very busy conference, in production I’ll need to think very carefully and consult with partners on programming, duration, managing the public engagement and so forth. Nonetheless I had a good number of visitors, many of whom stayed around to give feedback and talk through the many issues and values around climate change and adaptation.
On the creative side creative I need to make some decisions on the synthesis of the two glissandi (sliding tones). I kept the volume very low throughout and this worked very well as it drew people in and suited the atmosphere of the room. But I’d have been hesitant to boost the volume because it’s clear that creating a sound which will remain reasonably pleasant in the region of 15kHz will be a challenge. I had some interesting feedback on this and will make some adjustments overt the summer.
My paper, which I was constantly reviewing in the light of new research, was well received and I wait to hear if there are intentions to publish.
I’m now working on a second model which involves a study of the oral histories of indigenous Arctic communities, comparing and contrasting their environmental values and adaptation strategies, expressed through song, myth and stories, with the methodologies and findings of climate change scientists and regulatory bodies such as governments. My idea is to synthesise selected recorded texts spoken in the native languages (by me - I have a specialist on board to assist me with the pronunciation), then digitally transform the sounds, mapping the transformations to data, drawn either from climate change science or from the social sciences. I’m aiming to test and evaluate this new model at the forthcoming conference Balance-Unbalance 2017 A Sense of Place (http://balanceunbalance2017. org) to be held in Plymouth from 21-23 August. I’ll also be presenting a poster at the conference and will take advantage of whatever publication options become available. Opportunities are being explored through the Balance-Unbalance relationship with the Leonardo journal, published by The MIT Press and Ubiquity: The Journal of Pervasive Media, published by Intellect Ltd.
Finally I’ve been invited to realise a headphone installation of one of the sonification models at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn (COP23, November 2017). For this I’ll need to establish a technical or support partner in Bonn or nearby so if anyone out there has any connections in West Central Germany please let me know!
A Grimoire of Listening
During a much-needed dip into sound art's overflowing pool of ideas (good, bad and forgettable), and following a tramp around the ever-growing field of sound studies, I was intrigued by the notion (neither new nor one that you couldn’t have worked out yourself, but certainly not one widely accessible to somebody outside of the academic loop) that ‘listening’ is in need of some kind of liberation, that it can or should be meditative, subjective, affective, poetic, meandering or, as I will argue, even magical, as opposed to strictly technical, accurate, pure, privileged or expert. No wonder then, that having placed listening at the heart of both sonic theory and practice for many years, I’m strongly attracted to the notion of framing listening behaviours, in all forms of sonic art, as nomadic, unsettling, undisciplined, non-rational or unruly.
For example, Budhitya Chattopadhyay (1) writes that 'When it comes to theorizing sounds, being ephemeral and ineffable, situational sonic phenomena tend to transcend the stricter margin of epistemic knowledge-structures by triggering a freer stream of thoughts. If we explore a sonic phenomenon, we may find that a specific sound induces a flux of listening states inside listeners who may indulge in taking the phenomenon as a premise or entryway into a fluid world unknown to them — it is this unknowing that works against the deductive logic of theorization of the sounds.
In every occasion of so-called “scientific” writing on sound, I come across the problem of the slippage of meaning while trying to theorize sonic phenomenon in a controlled and analytical language.'
And in matters of praxis:
'...seemingly mundane auditory situations are explored and studied by means of their spatio-temporal, quasi-musical and/or narrative development, and (con)textualized by chronicling the myriad of thoughts triggered within the psychogeographic evocation of sites in the listening experience.'
Memory, suggestive resonances and meditative states. I propose that we go even further than affects and sensations, that these fluid worlds accessed by means of a flux of listening states can be thought of as magical worlds, truly magical. I'm interested in discussing this notion following a close reading of Marcel Mauss’s seminal work on magic (2), with some attention to the mechanisms of sympathetic magic in relation to our experiences of listening to recorded sound, especially the voice and specifically recordings of our own voice. Hovering over this predominantly anthropological (as opposed to aesthetic) approach is a keen awareness of radiophony, the production of experimental radio art, in the brilliance of its creative output and solid theoretical base. I’m thinking of writers such as Allen S. Weiss (3) who speaks of radiophony’s history and current forms in terms of transmission, disarticulation, metamorphosis and mutation (all processes of alchemy it should be noted) rather than communication and closure.
On the one side then, a magical listening to the world, not unlike our acceptance of the disarticulations, metamorphoses and mutations in the magical realism of Borges, Marquez and Allende, and on the other our listening to the magic of recorded sound, honouring Edison’s radiophonic ‘moment’ of 6 December 1877 when voice and sound became disembodied, heralding the dance and play of sympathetic magic.
1 http://earwaveevent.org/article/auditory-contexts-writing-on-sound/ )
2 Marcel Mauss, A General Theory of Magic, Routledge; London and New York, 2nd edition, 2001
3 Allen S. Weiss, Phantasmic Radio, Duke University Press; Durham and London, 1995
I've been working this week in Newcastle city centre with the artists and collaborators of Skimstone Arts, run by Claire Webster Saaremets and Peter Saaremets. The project I'm working on is based on a concept that I've wanted to develop and realise for a few years now. This residency brings everything together in one place, with the right people and support.
The residency came about in response to an open theme 'What if?' I responded with 'What if we could hear ourselves as others hear us?' in which I sit with people from all backgrounds, age groups and so on, record our conversation, then play it back and record their comments, observations, (typically) discomfort, at the sound of their own voices. Of course playback through speakers, no matter how good the technology, isn't the same thing as others hearing us, but it's as good as it gets. The conversations and responses have allowed a range of themes to emerge, many of critical interest to myself and the artists at Skimstone. Discussions around identity, self-esteem, belonging, the voice as a marker of race and nationality, and social awareness have all come to the fore in most of the conversations, but so too have other interesting sub-plots. Of interest to me are the degrees of self-awareness of one's disembodied voice as sitting on the cusp between sound-as-sign and sound-as-sound. Language, expression and communication versus pure phenomenological perception.
With respect to technology I have to say that if anything can go wrong it will, the immutable law of McPherson (Murphy if you're Irish) holds true as ever. Devices change settings on their own. Files disappear, without any human mediation, then reappear somewhere else, defying physical laws.
And of course one of the biggest demolition jobs in the history of Newcastle's city centre is taking place right outside our window on Pilgrim Street as (what once was) the Odeon is being scooped up brick by brick into trucks and recycled. The redeeming feature here has been an excellent recording I made of one of these sonically rich operations from the third floor of the Commercial Union Building .
I'm delighted to have received funding from The Chagrin Award, courtesy of Sound and Music, to record Matt Seattle, or rather his Border pipes, at my studio in Jedburgh. I want to coerce Matt into playing drones, high frequency speaks and blips and any other accidental sounds that he can coax out of his bags and chanter. Then I want to work with the material, edit, process and so on, maybe later add in some hurdy-gurdy (another recording session) and produce some new work. But I'd also like to bring together the players of these old instruments, plus the theremin playing of Nicoletta Stephanz (formerly of Gong and Legendary Pink Dots) and find a role for myself, mixing or processing or cutting loose with some electronics. All to come..
if we do nothing is the working title of a large-scale multi-agency collaborative project which sets out to investigate the sonification of climate change data.
I'm delighted to have been awarded funding from the a-n Artists Information Company towards the project. Following a long period of private research this funding will finally allow me to begin work with my new partners - a cryosphere research team, a digital media, coding and networking specialist, and an environmental artist/curator.
This research and development phase of the project will followed by further development, testing and evaluation before a final production phase in late 2017.
Here's a synopsis of the project so far.
Studio Improvisation, 1 March 2017
I thought it would be interesting to show what goes on in my studio. My neighbour thinks I watch porn all day. Never! That's a slur on my good name. What I actually do is experiment day after day, come to terms with failure as part of the process and occasionally learn something new and useful. It's a fundamentally human process, much under-rated in the current era. From this learning process I eventually make new work.
This short video shows me at work experimenting in the studio with two hand-made bowed psalteries, an ebow (electronic bow) and metal preparations - spring steel and ferrite rods, bandsaw blade, nails. The idea here is to make the ebow agitate the metal or whatever else I place on the psaltery, producing anything from a pendulum-like shimmering sound to a electronic/metallic percussive sound with a background sheen of string resonance. People often ask how I create the sounds in my compositions so I've demonstrated this by closing the gap between studio experiment and completed work. The sound in the video is taken from Koobi Fora Ash, a finished piece, released on my Bandcamp pages, which uses the same materials. After several recording sessions, I select, edit, timestretch and filter, re-record and so on till the job's done and it's time to mix. Interested to hear what others do.