I continue with my photographic practice and research alongside the usual fretting over the live performance of electroacoustic music. I thought here that I'd tie together these two practices by referring to an excellent interview I read the other day. Tim Carpenter is a photographer, a writer, and a co-founder of the photography book publishing imprint TIS Books. In this era of fast and dirty results in photography, and to an extent experimental music, his work might not be to everyone's taste because it eschews single image impact, focusing instead on the series, which requires a slow appreciation, a deep understanding of form and a respect for the history of the medium, three approaches which, as I've said, are not much in evidence these days. But his work and ideas have much to say to someone (like me) still learning the craft of photography and also to someone like me who spends most of his life managing the emergence of form in musical composition.
The article can be read here.
I'm simply going to take extracts from the article which mirror very well (and articulate far more effectively than I could) my own notions around artistic practice, formal considerations and even beauty, yes that. Finally he talks of 'new rurality' which, although reductive, wraps up very nicely most of what I'd consider myself to be doing as photographer from day to day in and around the Scottish Borders.
As I’ll explain more, my primary goal is to use a camera not as a recorder of thought, but as the instrument of thought.
I do think photography is the medium of the walker.
When one seeks to illustrate ideas, there’s rarely (never? maybe) any friction from the real world; nothing is transformed and nothing refuses to be transformed.
So, no, I’m not simply taking photographs; I’m calibrating the inside against the outside. And every once in a while, through constant shooting, I come upon a way of calibrating – a form – that seems true to both self and not-self.
..form IS the underlying pulse. We are form-making creatures; it’s the way we manage the chaos outside and are able to live moment by moment. We abstract from both inside and outside to create something in the middle, which is meaning. We are in a constant state of poesis – “the activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before.” This constant meaning-making could also be called “thinking.” Form-making IS thinking, the epistemological act. It’s also the calibration I was speaking of before. The problem is that the gap is unbridgeable and our desire for formal coherence is unquenchable. The longing for completion will never be satisfied.
When a person makes a thing that expresses the process of form-making, we have an aesthetic object. My belief is that the primary objective of a work of art is to communicate the ineffable from one idiosyncratic self to another. That which is effable – politics, economics, science &etc – can be adequately communicated outside of art. Which is to say that subject matter can be adequately communicated outside of art. So for me, the aesthetic object is to be judged a success or failure based on its formal ability to evoke cogency. Coherence. Beauty even.
The successful poem or song or picture is a fleeting connection between self and world. And it helped me immensely to calm that external flux in at least one way, by looking at the same streets and buildings and fields throughout the days and seasons and over the course of years. I really noticed when small things changed: a tree cut down, a house painted. But I also was made to focus more on the internal flux: what made me different on one day versus the next, or the next year.
I wrote about sourcing sounds for composition. There's obviously more to it than simply recording sounds or events. The whole process is anthropological and therefore complex. When it comes to editing and processing these recorded sounds things are, on the face of it, much simpler.
I transfer recorded sounds from the recording device to the computer then I edit them and compose using software applications. I could equally do this on a multi-track analogue tape recorder and I know some composers who still do. First I use Steinberg's Wavelab to listen back to the sounds. This takes a long time because I'm trying all the time to listen for possibilities beyond the actual sounds before me. I trim and level up the audio files, removing any unwanted sections, then open them up in Reaper, a digital audio workstation application which has a very simple time stretch function. This is where the sounds are timestretched, lengthened more often than shortened, a procedure which reveals new morphologies and further potential. At the same time I apply equalisation or filtering, which reduces or boosts frequencies, reduction being by far the most common procedure. I use a digital equaliser called Equilibrium made by DMG Audio which was recommended by a professional sound engineer. It offers digital emulations of all the great hardware equalisers and the level of detail and control it affords is unparalleled.
Where does this leave me? Well, from there I build up layers of sound in Wavelab's montage feature, which allows me to stack layers simultaneously, modify volume levels in great detail and process them further if required. This is where a composition comes alive, or dies a slow death. If I've learned anything over the years it's that there's no point in spending four or more hours a day working intensively with audio at fairly high volume and in great detail. The ears become fatigued and musical judgement diminishes. This doesn't mean that you can't work on the piece, it's just that you spend more time thinking about the composition in the abstract, away from the actual sounds, a challenging but interesting process in itself but one which can lead to better decisions own the long run.
With this most recent composition I made two big mistakes, along with all the numerous little ones. First I began working with sounds identical to or very similar to sounds that I'd used before. This undermines an approach to music, a core of my practice, which requires a fresh investigation with each new work. Why it took me so long to realise the mistake is beyond me. Another mistake, which I identified as it happened and which led to a resolution of all the major problems, was that I began trawling through my archives looking for 'something else' or something 'more suitable'. That's when the penny dropped and from there I returned to some of the less prominent sounds in my original work. The principal sounds here were of a joiner fitting out the inside of a nearby shop (which acted as a resonant cavity) taken on the street opposite the Abbey walls which reflected and dispersed the sounds around the built environment.
Sometimes we do actually learn from our mistakes but not as fast or as well as we'd like.
Perhaps the most important and possibly the least interesting aspect of electroacoustic composition is the provenance of sound sources. They're obviously important because without them you don't have any raw material but if too much is made about them they become fetishised and the work becomes about the objects or recordings and not about the eventual abstractions, modifications and transformations that produce make the eventual music, the latter being difficult to talk or write about (unlike the sources) or to generate images and other media that people might understand. But a photograph has its own value so here are some of the sound sources that have occupied me for the last few months, day after day, week after week (did I mention slow?).
Exciting? No. Apart from the frame drums and bristly toothbrushes which make a nice photo, the welding machine and oven are somewhat mundane. One could of course contextualise the interest in machines as a concern with the ethnography of technology but in all honesty I'm not in the least concerned with that here. At the time I heard and recorded these sounds I simply found them interesting and worthy of further examination.
Played well the frame drums or duffs are fine instruments but in my work I spend most of my initial preparations trying to eke out, often unconventionally, specific sounds for further treatment in this case the sounds of the skin being activated by wire brushes. Each duff has its own unique set of inner morphologies or sound-shapes determined by size, shape, mass and materials. The wire brushes tease out the sounds I wanted very well, offering shapes that ranged from the percussive to the quasi-melodic/harmonic as some of the activations released a rising harmonic series. The sounds of welding (in this project carried out by an actual welder) is somewhat predictable but there are all manner of subtleties as the metals and rods expand and contract, punctuated by near silences and the soft hiss of gases being released as the heat builds up.
So much for the initial recordings and I'll come to the oven sounds later but my last word on this first stage is that there is no rule that I've managed to set which determines how much time I should spend on this or that sound, then on the combinations, before it becomes evident that something isn't working as well as I thought it would. I therefore work slowly. My next activity involves two processes, both carried out in the digital domain, these being timestretching and filtering (or equalising) the recordings. That phase will form the subject of my next post on composition. Thanks for visiting.
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