composer, improviser, audio artist, researcher
composer, improviser, audio artist, researcher
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 .
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.