Ways to Live With Sound

Catalogue Essay (published in the festival DVD booklet)
Liquid Architecture 5, July 2004

Liquid Architecture, as an annual festival of sound arts, suggests a panoramic exposé of how people live and breathe sound today – how people make it, experienced it and think about in 2004.

Ways to live with sound. The cliché of pluralism is true: there are many ways nowadays. At Liquid Architecture you get concerts, installations, recordings, texts, talks. You get people working with traditional music instruments, everyday ‘found’ objects, electronic devices, software, acoustic and architectural spaces, the body, pre-composed, improvised et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Liquid Architecture has invited three international acts to complement the Australian artists featured at the festival, each working in a different way with sound today – violinist, film maker and minimalist Tony Conrad from the United States, mechanical instrument-maker and improviser Pierre Bastien from France, and improvising duo Reinhold Friedl and Michael Vorfeld from Germany. 

Right now, we’re going to take a fast ride in a time machine back to a pivotal moment in each artist’s trajectory in getting to Liquid Architecture 5, Australia 2004...

Nothing beats something – the expanded note

The year is now 1964. New York. T minus 40 years and counting...

Tony Conrad is living inside the sound of a highly tuned drone, along with John Cale, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela in the Dream Syndicate (aka the Theatre of Eternal Music). Conrad on violin, Cale on viola, Zazeela and Young on vocals – the tuning is rock hard and the timbres are tight.

Conrad is playing double stops on his violin (two notes at once). We may think we know what that might sound like, but there is this inner world to harmonic intervals that Conrad is hearing. His left ear, so close to the violin strings, hears what’s called a ‘difference tone’ – a very deep note that’s sliding around below the subtle shifts in tuning of the drone notes. He also hears subtle rhythmic beats that are the product of this tuning. And by reducing the musical material to almost nothing, these internal harmonic-rhythmic beats become a magnified something upon which to pin a highly focused listening. Here, in the genesis of Western minimalism, nothing beats something.

Conrad gets that special something playing his double stops. Muso Phill Niblock is currently getting it driving up the Carolinas:

‘I am riding a two stroke Yamaha motorcycle up a long mountain slope in the Carolinas, stuck behind a diesel engine truck. Both of our throttles are very open, overcoming the force of gravity. The revolutions of our respective engines are coming to a nearly harmonic coincidence, but not quite. The strong physical presence of the beats resulting from the two engines running at slightly different frequencies is putting me in such a trance... @#$*! I nearly rode off the side of the mountain.’
www.fallt.com/array/reviews/touchfood.html (adapted to present tense)

Anyway, as you hear, nothingness is not really nothing at all, just a different kind of something, or more to the point: a way of shifting attention to a different kind of something. It’s still 1964 and Susan Sontag’s essay ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’ is to appear in five years time, while John Cage’s silent piece ‘4’33” ’ is more than a decade old. Old hat. Cage and Sontag show us that silence is simply a relative term that might mean: when ‘x’ is silent, you will start to notice ‘y’. Stop melodic movement, and you hear a different sort of rhythm – the beats of harmony. Stop any form of musical movement, and you hear your own psycho-acoustic perception twist something static into fluid shifts of timbre and texture. Stop playing music, and you notice the ambient detritus all around you. Stop any external sound whatsoever, and you hear your own blood stream, heart and nervous system.

Minimalism, in its first reductive moments, is a type of silence that has blew the world away. Whichever way you like it, there’s a whole lot of sonic information on the other side of the reductive landscape that pulls apart and rearranges the classical ‘note’ into the contemporary ‘tone’.

Something beats nothing – the expanded moment

It’s still 1964, and La Monte Young may not give any indication yet, but he’ll create a major saga around the recordings and documentation of the Dream Syndicate. He’ll decide not to release them to the public, nor even to other members of the group, claiming sole authorship of what is essentially a group effort.

Conrad, however, is all for dispersing documentation, as it expands the moment of performance, becoming a historical archive for future generations. In particular, the relatively cheap audio and visual recording devices now hitting the shops in the mid-1960s is making sure history is no longer the sole domain of the rich and powerful. Whether cultural theorist Walter Benjamin likes it or not, in 1964 we are smack-bang in the middle of the age of mechanical reproduction, and at the beginning of the age of digital reproduction (the optical playback and recording technique required for compact discs are about to be developed in 1965 in Washington by James T Russell). 

In 2004, Conrad is going to state:

‘The 1960s were the first years in which it became possible for experimental artists on very small budgets to document their work at all accurately – with video and audio recorders, in particular. It is tempting to look back wistfully at these records and see them as offering a window onto a lost, romantic “reality.” However, I prefer instead to see this “window” as a suggestion that cultural invention today is not unique; that marginal cultural production has probably been an unrecorded presence over a vast scope of time and space – while only that cultural production which has been linked to systems of power has been recorded, sustained, and mythologised... If past cultural initiatives can stand in as models for what alternative cultural formations are (or might be) possible, then the record of the 1960s (and other times) may prove in fact to be very useful.’

The more the merrier – the expanded performer

The year is now 1974. Paris. T minus thirty years and counting...

Pierre Bastien is tinkering away at the latest in his collection of mechanical performers. For at least a year now he’s been brooding over what will become a hoard of musical automatons, collectively called the “Mecanium”. These performers are made from Meccano parts (the metal toy-building set), motors from old turntables, gears and pulleys, utilised to hit, bow, pluck and bang on acoustic instruments from around the world – like the European violin, the Moroccan rebab and the Yugoslavian mandolin. In several decades’ time, he’ll add everyday objects like scissors, ashtrays and paper to this arsenal.

Bastien is expanding his performing self, like a one-man band, with machines; in sound arts the human performer is not the only active agent triggering and sounding mute passive instruments, although there has always been an undercurrent of this in some form or another. Think of cook-coo clocks, musical jewellery boxes, and the pianola. And think of all the sounds we like to listen to that aren’t the trace of direct human activity – rain on tin roofs, wind through trees, the purring of our pet cat.

A big change took place with the advent of reproductive technologies of recorded audio, such as the phonograph from the 1870s and then the turntable and tape player. Here the ‘player’ is no longer a human but a machine. In this sense, the ‘player’ is also the ‘instrument’. But don’t bemoan the loss of the ‘human’ element in this musical mix – there’s a whole range of musicalities involved in the very human acts of building sonic machines, selecting sonic source materials and knowing when to press ‘play’.

The more the merrier – the expanded infrastructure

Bastien is making a community, of sorts – of machines. But on a cultural level, another community is slowly forming. Thirty years on in 2004, Bastien will recollect:

‘Was it the same in Australia? I remember that in France we had only one museum of modern art until the end of the ’70s, and it was the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris (and in Antibes the Musée Picasso, but this one was very specialised). There was also only one contemporary music festival, one jazz festival, and so on. Later on, the situation changed quite rapidly: nowadays many cities are organising festivals, every region has a contemporary art centre and some have several. The possibilities of playing some new music and showing some recent works have been multiplied by one hundred. In my opinion, this is the biggest difference [between nowadays and the 1970s], which of course has influenced our practice for the better...’

Lifting the lid – the expanded instrument

The year is now 1984. Berlin. T Minus twenty years and counting...

Reinhold Friedl is inside his grand piano. He’s been at it a year now, after many earlier experiments deconstructing the instrument at his parent’s house. Most of us have seen and even touched the surface of a piano in the flesh, with its shiny ebony, ivory and wooden surfaces. But the piano, like most instruments and music machines, has a private life, an inner sanctum. Lift the rid (no, get rid of the lid!) and the internal machinations are there for all to see. But more importantly for Friedl, this inner world is the site for sonic play and pleasure. In 2004 he’s going to state:

‘I have always been confronted with the quite mystical idea that a piano has “to sing” – to get long tones out of it, and to leave the well-tempered tuning. I discovered how to play interferences, microtonal sounds, etc, so the piano becomes a real orchestral instrument.’

The humble piano transforms into the expanded piano to become: outside, inside, keys, strings, frame, felt, pedals, levers, nuts and bolts. The instrument was never designed to make such sounds, but in the design of the instrument to play chromatic, equally-tempered pitches with a quick-release action and soft to loud dynamics, all the nuts and bolts embody sonic potential in themselves.

Although its 1984, the instrument as a site for living with sound has been expanding for quite some time now, for at least the last century. In modernist compositions, there are ‘extended techniques’ (non-orthodox ways of playing an instrument) and ‘prepared instruments’ (additions or modifications to an instrument). Extended instrumental techniques also comes out of free jazz and experimental improvisation – where the performer explores the full range of sonic possibilities inherent in the mechanical structure of the instrument, rather than being limited to the narrower range of sounds prescribed by a musical style. Feedback squeals and experimental usage of guitar pedals in rock and post-rock settings are other examples.

Percussion has been another big player in expanding the technical and timbral range of instruments. Musicians unleashing the percussive urge (gotta bang/hit/scrape/tap something!) have understood that any instrument could be requisitioned as a percussion instrument. The Futurists in the 1920s, Cage in the 1930s, experimental amateur crash-bands in the 1960s (and soon Pringle-popping troupe Stomp in the 1990s) take on the kitchen sink aesthetic. This is where Michael Vorfeld will pitch in, complementing Reinhold’s pianistic excursions with trips around a range of percussion or pseudo-percussion instruments.

So one of the major tendencies of sound arts is the aesthetic of the expanded instrument or tool: approaching an instrument/software program/thing as an object of sonic potential while dismissing or transcending the sounds and processes it was originally designed for. Lifting the lid or taking it apart need not be literal (though it often is) – it’s an attitude.

Sound Arts – the expanded field

The year is now 2004. Melbourne and Brisbane. We have lift off...

Notes are now tones; performers are builders; instruments have their lids ripped off; players are instruments, machines, humans. Within the liquid rhizome-like architecture of contemporary sound practices, there are many ways and places to live with sound.