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?