Guided by voices (IEM #4)

After having written below about the need to introduce constraints into the creative process, and then having fully immersed myself in the composition of the piece, what has become clear is that while it is useful to introduce pre-compositional constraints – establishing a work-concept that informs the creative process – these constraints themselves are only a scaffold which is eventually replaced by the more substantial constraints the work itself gradually establishes the further one moves inside this emergent territory. For example, in working with vocal material for the newly completed Let x = I had presumed that the heterogeneity of voice, the fact that it resonates at causal, semantic, and reduced levels (voice as voice, meaning and sound), could be accomodated in a single work. Certainly it can be and there are plenty of examples of works in which all these levels (and more) are operating simultaneously (one of my favourites remains John Young’s Sju), but in Let x = the constraint that the work itself introduced was a product of exploring the spatial sound environments afforded by IEM’s Ikosaeder (20-channel loudspeaker) and ambisonic hemisphere (24-channels), and the combination of these. In investigating what can be done with these spatially, it quickly became clear that the work was veering away from voice as speech (semantic), and voice as voice (causal) (aside from in a delimited but structurally significant way, i.e. as a means to mark key structural moments in the piece), and that in fact it needed to, wanted to, was going to, do so. The voice as sound, transformed but still vocalesque (voice-like), afforded enough sonic ambiguity and abstraction for sound materials to be utilised spatially without the histrionics of voices that behave like winged creatures or the schizophrenic effects of invisible conclaves, juries and choruses. The outcome is a work that, at least in my reckoning (I don’t need to be reminded that “the author is dead“), through which I manage to achieve one of the initial aims, but which also guided itself in a direction I had not anticipated. In the vocally tinged spatial atmospheres, textures and trajectories of Let x = there is a commingling of voice and environment which I feel fulfils my stated aims of  “the transformation of speech into objects resonating at embodied.. and environmental levels” and the dissolution of  “the barrier between ‘over here’ and ‘over there,’… the illusory boundary between ‘inside and outside’” (Tim Morton). Yet at the same time, the aim of deploying speech “as an ‘interface language’ between the kinaesthetic (nonverbal expression, including music, utterance, gesture and space) and the cenaesthetic (complex cognitive structures, including poetic language and the semantics of music)” has not really begun to be explored, simply because there is so little direct speech in the piece and when speech is heard it is in forms difficult to understand unless one is Indonesian (“Kaki langit,” the foot of the sky is the phrase that opens the piece) or capable of deciphering 6 languages at once (the closing moment of the piece simultaneously introduces the same phrase in English, German, Italian, Farsi, Bengali and Indonesian). Recognising that the piece guided itself is an important thing for me, not only because it recognises the extent to which things themselves have their own propensities and powers to which we are always having to respond (Graham Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics is good on this topic), but also because it means one can feel good about letting one’s own work-concept fall away and trust that engagement with the complex thing-in-itself (shadowy though its being is) will produce an object which is cohesive in its own ways, irrespective of how closely these match with the hypothetical thing it was intended to become. One of the other very satisfying aspects of this is that I can still attempt to compose the piece I thought I was composing, and by concentrating less on spatiality and more on semantics, perhaps a new work will emerge which “[deploys] speech “as an ‘interface language’ between the kinaesthetic… and the cenaesthetic”. Therefore the work itself is not finished. Let x =.


End of the Road

Just completed the soundtrack to End of the Road (2012), a short film by London Fieldworks for Mobile Republic: Digital Caravans, a touring exhibit by AND. A quick turnaround on this one. 2 weeks to complete it, around all the other stuff that has to be done. Happily this counts as research! The film is in a sense a commentary on climate change, in which a high carbon culture of leisure is implicated (caravaning). The irony being that the victim concentrated on in the film – Nigel Cutting –has a low carbon lifestyle, living in a caravan at the edge of the eroding cliffs of East Anglia (UK). The cliffs themselves have been vanishing for centuries, so are particularly vulnerable to the kind of extreme weather becoming more frequent due to climate change (about which NASA’s James Hansen has had a bit to say recently).

This is how London Fieldworks’ frame the film:

End of the Road is an elegiac reflection on contrasting symbolism of the touring caravan: from a gleaming symbol of leisure and freedom on a choreographed, automated Japanese-style production line, to an emblem of futile defiance right on the edge of a rapidly eroding East Anglian coastline; prey to a process of land disintegration accelerated by deteriorating coastal defences and rising sea levels.

Employing the touring caravan as a vector, End of the Road portrays a dialectic between an image of consumption and deteriorating physical landscape. The film offers the mode of mobile living as a future survival strategy for coastal dwellers within an inevitable climate of forced migrations and managed retreats.

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).

Black Water, Brown Water

This is the afterword I wrote for David Prior’s wonderful phonographic piece Black Water, Brown Water, originally a site-specific headphone soundwalk commissioned from Liminal (David Prior and Frances Crow) by British Waterways for the Stourport Canal Basin Regeneration project. As conceived by Prior, “Black Water Brown Water is a cinematic rendering in sound of the characters involved in the creation of the Stourport Basin.” As a phonographic work the piece is released as a book/CD (and available to order online) by Acts of Language. The afterword is a poetic examination of phonographic technology and (un)mediated listening as a substrate to the piece.

“The water sounds today like it did yesterday”

(Black Water Brown Water)

The soundwalk originates in listening. Without fear of being “Obscured and made weak; as the voyce of a man is in the noyse of the day” (Hobbes, 1651): the Italian Futurists, “Let us cross a great modern capital with our ears more alert than our eyes” (Russolo, 1913); John Cage, using listening to bring down walls (4’33”, 1952); Max Neuhaus, stamping the word LISTEN on his audience’s hands before leading them through New York (1966).

For R. Murray Schafer, inveterate soundwalker and progenitor of acoustic ecology, there is no music in the industrialised world. “Only a brutish society would allow itself to be awaked each morning to such non-natural noises as [lawnmowers, leaf blowers etc] without a murmur of protest.” He’s right, in a sense. The Stourport Canal Basin has been colonised by traffic sound.

Yet the machine neither opposes nor is opposed to listening.

As Microscopes or Magnifying Glasses, help the Eye to see near Objects, that by reason of their smallness were invisible before. So Microphones or Micracousticks, that is, Magnifying ear instruments may be contriv’d after that manner, that they shall render the most minute Sound in nature distinctly Audible — BP. N. MARSH (1684)

The microphone is a machine that ‘listens’, but its ear must always be judged against our own. In the space between these, sound is estranged from its original context, even while the listener remains within the scene. In the headphone laboratory, sound becomes specimen. The listener’s ear audits, at an objective remove, sound bodies: at the tip of the microphone boom, water pouring over a lock; around the hydrophone, the pressure of immersion.

Sensual empiricism.

We stroked the left ear of a dummy head with a paintbrush and recorded the sound and the scene. We then presented the sound, the images, or the both to participants. The participants rated their subjective tactile experience by answering a questionnaire. The results revealed that the participants felt a tickling sensation when the sound was presented near to the head — Kitagawa and Igarashi (2005)

Microphonic estrangement begins schismogenesis (Feld), but the unfolding aural scene outside remains wedded to what is heard inside the headphones. The microphone heightens perception of sonic grain and perspective, but the fact of presence prevents full estrangement of sound from source. If one is unsure of what one hears, one looks. Seeing is believing.

Was it starting to rain? I listened, I listened again. I found the noise persisted… Was I then satisfied? Not at all. For, my ears might be ringing. I went to the window. No water on the pane. But rain may fall straight down. Consequently, I opened the window and leaned out — Spaier (in Sartre, 1936)

Schismogenesis is complete when auditor becomes phonographer. Recorded sound can be played back (temporal estrangement) in any context (spatial estrangement). Recording is documentary, but you shouldn’t always believe what you hear. Apparition. Audition.

WARNING: Using headphones can be disorienting — Soundwalk map, Black Water Brown Water

Schismogenesis allows commingling. Was and is, here and elsewhere. Dartington Estate birds in Stourport’s trees. Canal side voices from an acoustically neutral studio. Superposition is the method of the mediated soundwalk, problematising the real. Estrangement encouraging engagement. Not the same as a personal soundtrack to manage everyday life.

After a long succession of noises, as the fall of waters, or the beating of forge-hammers, the hammers beat and the waters roar in the imagination long after the first sounds have ceased to affect it — Edmund Burke (1757)

Signal processing of recorded sound furthers estrangement, induces abstraction. Fast Fourier Transforms of water recordings stretch time – allowing close scrutiny of “the babble and blot, the swash and spume” (Black Water, Brown Water) – and render spectra mutable. Water droplets or record crackle?

Abstracted still further, sound is bridled to music.

[M]achines as the means not only of producing sound but also of musical values themselves… Many researchers, well understanding the pre-eminent importance of musical value, turned to the physicists. Their values were now frequencies, decibles, harmonic spectra. With electronics they could get direct access to all this and have really precise and objective musical values — Pierre Schaeffer (1995)

Inside the machine, speech couples with a barrel organ, becomes music, births a sonorous metaphor. Soundwater. Exterior, entering the body, becoming interior, projected outwards again, to take yet unpredicted forms and meanings.

It goes in

It comes out

It rains

It steams

— Black Water, Brown Water

So the body of sound, of the listener, is located in an environment in an ecosystem in the biosphere, through the medium and metaphor of water. Sound articulates our fluid substrate. Brindley, “the enemy of each salt flood and ebbing stream”, seeks to rationalise water, “the liminal river, intemperate and unowned” (Black Water Brown Water). Sabrina obvenes. Water, like sound, is a feminine medium. Labile, unbridled, fertile, encompassing.

Each soul knows the infinite, knows everything, but confusedly. It is like walking on the seashore and hearing the great noise of the sea — Leibniz (1714)


Burke, Edmund (1757). A Philosophical Inquiry into the origin of our ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful with an introductory discourse concerning Taste, and several other additions

Leibniz, Gottfried (1714). The Monadology

Feld, Steven (1994) “From Schizophonia to Schismogenesis: On the Discourses and Commodification Practices of ‘World Groove’ and ‘World Beat’”, in Music Grooves (ed. Keil and Feld), Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Hobbes, Thomas (1651). Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civil

Hodgkinson, Tim and Schaeffer, Pierre (1986). Interview with Pierre Schaeffer, Recommended Records Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1987

Kitagawa, Norimichi and Igarashi, Yuka (2005). “Tickle sensation induced by hearing a sound”, The Japanese Journal of Psychonomic Science, Vol. 24, No. 1: 121-2

Marsh, BP. N (1684). Entry for “Microphone n., 1. A mechanical device”, Oxford English Dictionary Online

Sartre, Jean Paul (1936). Imagination: a psychological critique (trans. Williams), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962

Schafer, R. Murray (1992). “A Deceptive Neighborhood: The Soundscape of Toronto’s Lower Forest Hill”, Environmental & Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter, Vol. 3

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The water sounds today like it did yesterday by Dugal McKinnon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.