Monday, November 22, 2010

what is radiophonic?

I'm going to take a break from my more navel-gazing obsession with reflecting on my own sound/musical work. Instead I want to write down some thoughts on radiophonic art that were first sparked three years ago by hearing six new, short 'radiophonic' works in three distinctly different listening contexts.

The six works were created by six quite different artists and artist collaborations in response to the same commission: to create a 4-minute sound work for radio incorporating one or more of five given samples from Monteverdi's 400-year-old opera l'Orfeo. The task was further fleshed out with the suggestion that the works respond in some way to the history/nature of opera and/or the Orpheus myth: a collection of stories and re-tellings replete with the classic opera themes of love, death and the power of music.

The listening contexts in which I heard the six works were (in this order): 
1. alone on headphones connected to a computer;
2. with others in a sound-proofed studio on a large and excellent studio play-back system;
3. at home off a portable transistor radio in the kitchen during their first broadcast.

The ways in which I experienced these works and their perceived effectiveness in the three different contexts (socially/sonically isolated intimacy; high-end sound projection in a purpose-built work space; in a lo-fi, casual social context) highlighted for me the differences between the 'radiophonic' mode and the other predominant listening modes of 'concert' (public, hi-fi performance-oriented projection) and 'private soundtrack' (the solipsistic listening spaces of the mp3 player and other such personal listening technologies).

So to the works.

Damian Barbeler's Tuning Orfeo was totally absorbing in immersive headphone listening mode, its layering of field recording, samples and indoor performance making an interesting play with contemporary listening contexts. This was still moderately effective in the listening context of a studio, but evaporated completely when heard off the radio in my kitchen where the additional layers of rich acoustic spaces (indoor sounds plus the layers of sound from outside) made the layers within the piece inaudible.

Distorpheus, Robin Fox and Anthony Pateras's attempt to capture 'the power and drama of operatic form' made it's impact fully on the big speakers and classic proscenium listening situation of the studio. This power had less room to breath on headphones, and lost most of its ability to command attention when delivered through my domestic radio speakers at home. Here the big gestures and sonic intensity of the work became thin and uninteresting.

In contrast, while I enjoyed Amanda Stewart's Eurydice's Sigh on headphones, I was mildly disappointed by it in the studio setting. It wasn't until I listened on the radio at home that its intimate address of multi-voiced whispers and utterances revealed its power, reaching straight into the sound-world of the kitchen. Its play between speech and the musical potentials of voice now became a thoroughly arresting and intriguing presence within the acoustic environment of my domestic world, the words heard as if listening to the speaker's thoughts, or to her voice speaking directly to me.

Even more low-key in its initial sleepy, fuzzy impact on headphones was Dave Noyze and Sarah Last's Monteverdudley, a curious investigation of speech synthesis and the soundworld of the regal organ prominent in the Monteverdi opera. The studio listening situation added little to its impact, but like Stewart's work, this piece revealed hidden depths in the radio listening situation, proving strangely compelling as a synthetic, muffled guest insinuating its way into the atmosphere of my kitchen. Again, the spoken utterances became far more compelling in this domestic context.

The remaining two works were much more level in their impact across the three listening situations. On the one hand there was Constantine Koukias' Vox Orpheus - a gently alluring invitation into an exotic realm of ancient Greek language and music. The effect was attractive in a low-key way across all three listening contexts - a kind of dream world of lovely sounds and voices existing in a timeless space somewhere just out of reach.

Arresting in all three contexts was Gail Priest's Coffee this morning which combined the immediate impact of rich repeated chords in a bright, 'pop' music production with the radiophonically effective intimacy of her kitchen-drama monologue which, with its accompanying domestic sounds, appeared like a guest drinking coffee at my table. (You can read more about the ideas behind these works as well as listen to many more works created in response to the Orpheus challenge on the Orpheus Remix Awards website.)

So what is this thing called 'radiophonic'?

Radiophonic listening almost invariably involves the work being projected into an already rich sonic environment as one of many competing sound sources. In this context the work is most likely to achieve some impact by addressing rather than ignoring the primary function of radio listening - as an aural companion making a direct address to listeners within their divergent and uncontrollable listening contexts.

This is a radically different performative context to the  hi-fi or electroacoustic concert presentation of work where the whole listening context is focused proscenium-arch style on the stereo field of the audio's projection. It is also substantially different from the immersive and aurally decontextualised intimacy of headphones.

What radiophonic art's future is in a rapidly changing media context is hard to say. Though as long as there is sound being transmitted into portable devices and heard as part of the fabric of listeners' personal spaces, from kitchens to cars to bedrooms to beaches, then there will be the need to make opportunities for artists to seek new ways of engaging with this context.

What this blog completely ignores is the intriguing histories of divergent sound arts that have fed into the development of radiophonic art. But that is definitely a story for another day, and probably a more qualified teller.

Monday, October 25, 2010

what is a microphone?

What would the results for recording and 'sound art' be if there were as many different kinds of microphones in the world as there are pairs of ears? If, indeed, it was possible to use a pair of ears as microphones, and to feed whatever resonated in those inner cavities and nerves directly through the inputs of a recording device?

The thought was prompted by a friend talking about the experience of hearing the world with inner ears full of fluid - the result of a respiratory virus. Apparently certain frequencies are blocked, making all pianos sound honky-tonk and out of tune, and causing some women's voices to sound high and squeaky/'little-girly'. My voice is apparently unchanged.

Speaking of filtering, I'm loving the effects of my Korg MS20 synth on the vocal signal from my Beyer Dynamic mic. Every time I change the settings it's like I'm working with a new and 'differently-abled' microphone.

I think I'm attracted to sonic experiences of mild disorientation. Such as the slightly hallucinogenic interaction of my treated voice with the 'clean' signal in among the cycas, my chant-like interpretation of Jen Craig's micro-story Perspective.

As in my piece Over the River the audio and text converge on a shared experience of the Shoahaven river  during our Bundanon residency, but unlike the other piece, among the cycas has no field recordings in it. It relies instead on the inflections in my vocal and synthesizer improvisation in the acoustic of the Dorothy Porter Studio at Bundanon. The text captures a shared experience of looking at the river through trees from a rock high above the water. Something about the perspective subtly undermined our sense of which way was up.

My performance of Jen's text at the time was completely in the moment. But reflecting on it now it seems to me that the play with tuning, overtones and shifting pulses aims to suggest a similar disorientation of aural reference points around a very simple, almost montonal chant. Perhaps while you're listening to among the cycas you may feel like you've got fluid in your ears...

Saturday, October 2, 2010

the raw and the cooked

My collaborative residency with writer Jen Craig is coming to an end, and while we've both done lots of work over the past 12 days, there's not much that's ready for anyone else to hear.

Part of my process over the past week has been simply to take Jen's texts and put myself in front of a microphone or two (with one of the mics feeding through an old analog synthesizer) and improvise take after take of interpretations of these texts. As the week has gone on I've found myself homing in on certain texts that seem to gel more with the vocal performances I've come up with. Most of these are still in various stages of editing and elaboration with other recorded material from the residency and elsewhere. But I decided to take a risk tonight and let one fairly raw offering out of the bag. Listen.

The text is one of Jen's briefer micro-stories - a 32-word utterance called Only three removes - that leaves lots of raw edges hanging. Unlike the previous two audio pieces, I've done nothing to directly address the contexts the text refers to (Kafka, holocaust, Prague...). I've just set two quite different 'readings' (vocalisings) of the text side by side. While I wanted to make the text comprehensible, neither of my readings aims to emphasise the narrative or emotive details of the text. Rather, they take a relatively emotionally flat approach, but with lots of grain in both the vocal performances and the interference (noise?) provided by the synth and some abrasive treatment of one of the mics.

My sense is that the resulting musical texture is analogous (homologous in Shepherd and Wicke's sense?) to the unresolved edges - almost the emotional prickles - that I read (feel?) in the text. It's a text which is full of ambivalence and tension. My desire in making the music was to inhabit (and perhaps take pleasure in) that space of masochistic discomfort. The masochism extends to the rough and unresolved edges of the recording and mix itself.

Does the strategy succeed in embodying such an experience? Or does the very 'under-produced' nature of the work get in the way, and stop the listener from really listening? Is it too literally uncomfortable to resonate and be appreciated as a musical experience?

Monday, September 27, 2010

text, sound and sentiment

Over the River, my second 'essay' (attempt) in responding sonically to Jen Craig's Absurd Enticements  blog began with a simple association of time and place.

We stood on the banks of the Shoalhaven River at dusk. I made a recording of the cries of an enraged spur-winged plover, complete with natural echoes from the cliffs opposite. The effect of these sounds as the very last of daylight faded from the sky was haunting indeed and also, like the songs of many of the birds of this location on the Shoalhaven River and in the bush above, intensely musical.

Jen was absorbed with her own responses to the site. She photographed the cliffs and water. Afterwards she wrote a micro-story, Furred Water, focusing on the visual atmospheric resonances of the work of Arthur Boyd in the water, cliffs and bushland he painted so often in the last decades of his life.

Putting text and field recording together was on the face of it a crude juxtaposition of disparate materials which just happen to be derived from the same location. But here the mysteries of place and association kick in.

Jen's text comes to a head around the image of the river's 'silent, maniacal fury'. The performance and juxtaposition of the text with the field recording opens up the possibility that the plover's voice is the articulate embodiment of this fury. The river's inarticulacy further feeds on the technical limits of my recording, the river's 'furred water' seemingly emphasised by the wash of air and intermittent background traffic sounds.

And if anything, the obvious sentiment in the resulting audio piece is heightened by the apparent obliqueness of a text that focuses on water, and a field recording that focuses on birdsong.  

It seems to me that the very uncertainty (open-ness?) of its referential content is key to sound's capacity to embody presence - the simultaneity and fusion of multiple divergent and convergent strands of experience. This capacity is what music is built on.

But enough flights of speculation. In this case, the obviously 'poetic' diction of my reading brings into play sentimental expectations, suggesting some reverential contemplation of the sounds of both the words and the field recording.

How would the sound and text be experienced if the text were simply read silently in the mind of a person while listening to the raw field recording? (Or even the doctored version I've offered up in cobbling together the most usable bits and boosting elements that underpin the delivery of the text.) Would any of the above associations be carried by this juxtaposition without the text itself being embodied and placed in a performative relationship to the river sounds and the plover's cries?

And how would the result change if the placement of the words was altered? Or if their delivery was more prosaic, even conversational?

All of which suggests that working by association rather than analogy or parody risks making texts less open, not more. Or did you hear my piece quite differently?

the long way around

After reading my last entry and Jen Craig's 'Art Works' you may have been amused by the length and circumlocutions of my blog alongside the brevity and richness of resonance of her story. An object lesson of the communicative power of 'fiction' as against more discursive or banally analytical attempts to capture our reality.

Perhaps my audio-piece Bundanon drive-by also seemed to labour the point. Though perhaps this was the point of the exercise - more of a burlesque parody than an attempt at direct analogy.

Nonetheless, in the interplay of text and sound it might be more interesting to leave both analogy and parody behind in favour of more oblique or tangential associations. Here the individual and collective meanings of text and audio might remain more open giving room for feeling and imagination (or just sentiment?) to flower.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

art works - it's only natural

The piece Art works on Jen Craig's micro-story blog Absurd Enticements draws attention to assumptions about nature and the 'natural' - a presumed (desired?) absence of artifice or human intervention in 'The Bush', called into question in this case by the presence of an artist residency. Which is exactly where Jen and I find ourselves, working together on the first stages of an audio-textual collaboration.

But what is natural? In Bundanon walk-by, my audio response to Jen's text, I went for a rather literal sonic analogy.

The piece is a brief 60 seconds of apparently 'natural' (i.e. human-free) bushland field recording. But to begin with, hearing these sounds in my recording rather than by being in the bushland yourself is already an artifice. In spite of the potential to get lost in the apparently human-free sounds of bushland birdsong, the presence of humans is already implicit in the fact of the recording - with its attendant decisions about the choice and placement of recording gear, of the place, the time of day, and decisions about where the recording begins and ends, to name a few types of 'intervention'. Even the presence of a sound recordist in the landscape is already an intervention into this idyll.

But then, what's so unnatural about humans doing what humans have always done - responding to our surroundings and experiences with art and artifice must surely be included in any larger concept of 'nature' or the natural. But just in case there's any doubt of human intervention, I proceed to ram the point home with lashings of gratuitous artifice.

This begins with my staged bush-track walk-by, my boots on the path fore-grounding the presence of humans in the bushland setting. The selected piece of field recording places this event right at the centre of its brief 60-second sonic narrative.

Added to this is the insertion into the 'verité' field recording of two rather colourful whipbird utterances recorded in a different time and place.

The pair of whipbird utterances are further manipulated by being presented as if two halves of the one phrase, and then being repeated a total of six times before the piece ends, becoming louder and less subtley embedded in the surrounding soundscape each time.

The final utterances are brutally altered by artificial reverb, chorus effects and panning before giving way to rhythmic reiterations of the sounds of my boots hitting the leaves and twigs of the path as they pass the microphone. No escaping this 'artifice' thing. But then, it's only natural for humans to play with the materials of their environment.

But of course, my approach by its very nature as a recording to be experienced away from the environment, is different to the ambiguous 'art works' of Jen Craig's micro-story. In contrast to my audio piece, the leaves and twigs she refers to are in situ in the bushland itself. Her uncertainty as to their 'untouched-ness' (or at least the lack or presence of human will and aesthetics in their arrangement) is a more radical destabilising of our experience of 'nature' than the experience of my  recording can ever be.

How to communicate such an experience in sound...

Perhaps I should just record a telling of the story?

Or perhaps the key is a subtler approach? How to raise the question of artifice for a listener without answering it one way or the other...

[Bundanon walk-by is the first of a series of small scale audio responses to Jen Craig's micro-story blog as part of the first stage of a longer-term collaborative audio-textual project, kicked off by a Bundanon artist residency this month.]

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

sounds of İstanbul

What a year - my excuse for leaving this blog to languish for so long.

Sounds of İzmir - sounds of İstanbul. In the last 2 weeks I've finally made the radio programs from the interviews and music I collected in İstanbul in January, not long after my last post. (If you want to hear the music and learn more about the artists, check out my programs on New Music Up Late, available for 4 weeks after broadcast.)

The image is a doorway to one of the many bars and venues in İstanbul's downtown Beyoğlu area. In January I had the good fortune to meet up with and interview 3 quite different voices of the İstanbul new musical world. The three artists in question were guitarist and electro-acoustic composer Erdem Helvaçioğlu, computer noise-based artist and event producer Batur Sönmez, and contemporary classical and theatre composer and sound installation artist Alper Maral.

Interestingly, all three of these artists has in recent times been drawn to make studio works drawing on the rich soundworld of urban İstanbul, this crossing point between Europe and Asia (see the photo of the Bosphorous which divides the two continents and the bridge which joins them below). Each in their own way is attracted by the richness of the source material but at pains to avoid falling into a simple exoticism or picture-postcard relationship to their famous hometown.

There is Helvaçioğlu's A Walk through the Bazaar, playing with dangerously touristic material, but through the shifting prism of of electro-acoustic and beat-based re-contextualising. Maral's Das klingende Alphabet with its structure around the cycles of day and season, emphasising the sounds of contemporary urban transport in a way that suggests nostalgia, but for the İstanbul of everyday life rather than tourism. And then Sönmez whose more disguised investigations of the sounds of ferryboat engines in Noise İstanbul are intriguingly interrupted by incidental street music, creating interesting tensions between his noise aesthetic and music as it is more widely understood.

I wonder, is the need to make works out of the sound of a city more likely for these artists because of the overwhelming character of the sonic (and socio-cultural) environment of their city? Or is there some other explanation? Could this be a wider international trend on the back of the extraordinary ease of making such recordings since the arrival of cheap, portable digital recorders and the pervasiveness of sounds from beyond traditional 'music' in the increasingly important field of sound design?

Friday, January 1, 2010

sounds of İzmir

Sounds of Izmir - car horns, music playing from numerous street and shopfront systems, muezzin calls from mosques near and far punctuating the day and leaving langorous vapour trails of blurred background polyphonies. It's all music, isn't it? And now from inside the hotel room the muffled sounds of voices and indistinct bass lines filtering down from the restaurant above.

Is the plethora of overlapping sound systems or the solos and choruses of car horns the more musical? It would be tempting to suggest that the calls from the mosques are more obviously musical than either. But what if the intention of the caller is to deliver a message - to recite - and not to make music at all? Do intentions make a difference? And if so, whose intentions should we be interested in?

And is music just a concept for distracting us from the play of intentions...?