Awkward Ecologies now online

My piece on the awkward ecologies of sound-based music is now available in eContact! 13.3 which “features a selection of articles presented at the 2010 Toronto Electroacoustic Symposium (TES) and further complementary articles addressing contemporary issues of performance, education and composition in the larger EA milieu, and is rounded out with interviews and chats with Canadian and international composers and performers.”


Silence and non-cochlear sound art

Jason Wright drew my attention to the sound installation work of Tristan Perich and Felix Hess. The two works below exemplify a non-cochlear sound art (Seth Kim-Cohen) and are mesmerising proof of sound’s status as the most “withdrawn” of phenomena, with silence as the apotheosis of this: “Silence is not merely negative; it is not the mere absence of speech. It is a positive, a complete world to itself” (Max Picard, in George M Foy’s  Zero Decibels). But clearly neither pole is replete, there is a necessary complicity between sound and silence – “Silence is the ‘other side’ of sound” (Don Ihde, Listening and Voice)

Felix Hess, It's in the air (1996)

Felix Hess’ It’s in the air must beg the question “is it?”. A silence which draws the auditor to the horizon of sound. “Tens of tiny paper vanes move with the imperceptible eddies of air pressure fluctuations in a space. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this installation can create both a heightened sense of hearing, or an awareness of complete silence.”

Tristan Perich’s Breathing Portraits (2005-2010) use sub-audible waveforms to drive naked speaker cones (we all know what these look like, but there’s a photo below) so as to visually represent the breathing patterns of the subjects of these portraits. Sound is cut from its source and reproduced, inaudibly but visibly, and out of this emerges the invisible life-force, the pneuma, that drives the loudspeakers in the first instance. The loudspeaker cone ceases to be the reproductive source of a spectral presence (the invisible source-cause) and becomes an uncanny thing, a hyperobject, the affective power of which derives from its ontological distribution across visible presence (moving loudspeaker cone) and audible absence (human breathing). This, to appropriate Steven Feld’s take on Gregory Bateson’s term, is a rare form of sonic schismogenesis and very beautiful it is too. [and what a shame I can’t embed video without paying for a WordPress video upgrade…]

Tristan Perich, Breathing Portraits – Chris and Tom

Notes towards a programme

Lilburn in the Victoria University EMS

Douglas Lilburn’s electronic music continues to fascinate. I’ve written about it in a number of (offline) contexts, and this Wednesday evening will be helping to present a concert marking the 10th anniversary of his death – 10 years ago today. Here follow notes towards programme notes for the electronic works in the concert, which explores the links between his lesser known piano works and the electronic work. Lilburn’s complete electronic works, by the way, are available as a box set from SOUNZ.

God Save (1972, 1:00). A familiar melody, transformed into wonky bagpipe filigree and, later, towards those birdlike forms so prevalent in the electronic work. It  is no doubt a republican snipe, not least given Lilburn’s focus on the “the discovery of our own [musical] identity” (Lilburn, 1946), and delivered with irreverent antipodean wit.

Five Toronto Pieces – Sings Harry (1963, 5:06). One of Lilburn’s earliest electronic works and it presages many of the features of his mature works in the electronic medium. There is a sparseness, a concern for inharmonic timbres (so characteristic of the technology of the day), a structure defined by refrain (song is never far away in Lilburn’s music), and the sudden opening of the texture into ebullient melody (birds and bagpipes again). Then at the end, somewhat unexpectedly, there is Lilburn, giving voice to a different reading of Denis Glover’s poem. This might be understood as Lilburn revising his own history which in 1963, as Lilburn embarked on a journey into the nascent electronic medium, was still largely defined by the success of the other Sings Harry (1954).

Soundscape with Lake and River (1979, 11:00). Without doubt Lilburn’s best known electronic work. It remains a singular statement, juxtaposing and overlaying field recordings made near Taupo with electronic textures that reflect and refract the natural world of New Zealand which Lilburn held to be key to his aural imagination. Aside from its sheer beauty, the reasons for the work’s significance are best articulated by Lilburn: “I think the last piece that I did [Soundscape with lake and river] really brought me full circle to what I’d been wanting to do all the time: take the natural sound of the river and lake at Taupo and weave it into the texture of the electronic sound and fuse them in some way.”

Triptych (1977, 11:00). This work presents something of summary of many of Lilburn’s signature sounds and techniques, and as ever bears relationship both to his instrumental work (melody always hovering close by) and his engagement with the natural world (birds around tangled horizons). To a contemporary ear, it has an appealing quirkiness and grittiness, which is one reason why these pieces grab the attention of those who are as interested in electronica as Elektronische Musik. More than this though, it is in soundworlds such as this that, as Frederick Page put it, ‘the strangeness, the remoteness, of our world, finds its sound’ (1970).

Journal of Biological Rhythms

This might be to acoustic ecology what Lefebvre’s rhythmanalysis was to sociology:

“The Journal of Biological Rhythms (JBR) presents work at the forefront of understanding the basic nature, mechanisms, and functions underlying the generation, entrainment, and expression of biological rhythms in plants, animals, and humans. It emphasizes original interdisciplinary research, primarily on circadian and seasonal rhythms. Rhythms are placed within the context of the functional significance for the health and well-being of relevant organisms, including humans.”

There’s even a Society for Research on Biological Rhythms

Awkward Ecologies

My essay on the awkward ecologies of sound-based music is to be published online in eContact! (13.3), the journal of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community. Thanks to Kevin Austin for spotting the essay in this blog, and to Jef Chippewa for his editorial prowess. The piece isn’t hugely changed, but has been softened slightly…