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12 December 2014

Listening to music in 2014 #2: Bodies - Nobody

Ivan Lisyak Image: Ivan Lisyak  
© aliasfrequencies.org

In 2014, several performances and recordings challenged Jim Denley's ideas about music and sent him thinking. The resulting article is published in two parts - read part 1 'Instruments - Unstruments' (Resonate 9 December 2014). See also the newly released program of the 2015 NOW now festival (14-18 January), featuring some of the artists discussed here, plus numerous others.

Negative improvisation and the tunnel

At the NOW now 2014 Festival, Sydney, there were numerous performances where bodies took centre stage, or not. Two achieved a nihilistic physicality: one through immobility, the other through absence.

On the Friday night Ivan Lisyak stood on stage, well lit, untouched laptop beside him on a podium. Pounding through the PA - crunchy techno, structured in clichéd phrases, 4 bars of this, 8 bars of that. He stood to attention - an anti-dance, unmoving - as members of the audience moshed, one remonstrating, trying to get him to move. Ivan's theatrical immobility contrasts with nerdy, shuffling sound artists we fail to register as dancers. Was that what the performance was about - satire?

On Sunday night (Kynan Tan and Andrew Brooks) set up laptops on a large table, with a microphone, a pile of books, but no performers. They hoped the audience might recite text - none did (although one snooped around). Noise diffused through the PA, butted with silences.

Té say the work developed in response to challenges laid down in an article in the 2014 NOW now festival zine, 'Improvisation and Communisation' by the Basque artist Mattin. Mattin quotes Akira, the Scottish experimental music, film and art organisation:

'Cultivate processes of uncreativity so as to guard against the production of selves as commodities. […] Actions that seem to lack any artistry whatsoever; uncreativity, unoriginality, illegibility, appropriation, plagiarism, fraud, theft, and falsification as your art or your own province and precepts; information management, databasing, and extreme process as methodologies; and boredom, valuelessness, and nutritionlessness as an ethos...'

In his chapter called 'Negative Improvisation' Mattin goes on to advocate, 'Rather than experimenting with instruments it would be experimenting with our own selves, material conditions and broader social relations. This negative improvisation would accelerate situations to the point of mirroring our impossibilities and our limitations by producing situations where one is confronted with the negativity of our times.'

Does Ivan's immobility, Té's absence, and their use of automation signify a refusal to engage in the entanglement of perception, physicality and awareness that I said was involved in music-making, does it negate Merleau-Ponty's incorporated tools? (See Part 1 of the article 'Instruments - Unstruments').

They had pre-inscribed and pre-sequenced their sounds, (plenty of precedent in Western music for that, {although interpretation normally gives liveness to composition}), and there's plenty of installation sound art where performance is absent - what's the big deal?

Both events had soundchecks - had their entanglements and incorporations occurred before the actual performance? Or was the work not about the hand of the artist - were the ideas behind the works meant to surpass each work itself?

In both events, sound, while an important element, was not the material that was played with. Were they 'experimenting with our own selves, material conditions and broader social relations'?

There are myriad functions in our society where computers 'control' situations with little or no interaction from us. Ironically, the festival took place in Marrickville under the flight path for Kingsford Smith Airport - as we listened, planes landed on autopilot. Were we confronted with the negativity of our times?

(Actually Peter Blamey's foraging - see part 1 - is more analogous to auto-piloted landings because, while his motherboards are autonomous, there's an expert observing, ready to step in at a moment's notice - Té's event was more analogous to the use of pilotless drones, although even there the remote controller affects the flight).

In what was, for me, the most elegant event of the festival, John Wilton was positioned most of a Saturday with one cymbal in a storm-water tunnel under Sydenham Station, the audience invited to enter and walk towards the sound for 300 metres, much of that through a dark, low, cobwebbed ceiling. As you tunnelled, the sound became increasingly proximate and, approaching the end, you saw John in natural light, only his arms moving with the mallets, a clock on the opposite bank. His six-hour performance superficially focussed on one-to-one gesture - John hit the cymbal with two mallets.

John Wilton's performance in the underground storm-water tunnel.

The blind person's use of the cane results in the cane becoming 'incorporated' (Merleau-Ponty 1945/1962: Phenomenology of Perception, p. 139) into the body-image. The cane becomes 'a bodily auxiliary, an extension of the bodily synthesis' and the practical use of the cane becomes a habitual pattern subsumed as a motor intentionality.

A drummer's habit of using sticks becomes increasingly refined - there's no longer need to interpret the pressures of the sticks on skin, or to objectively measure their length in order to play the cymbal. At this stage there is no need to objectively interpret any data whatsoever, all is performed by a habitual function that 'relieves' him/her of the necessity of doing so - the musician is free to sound/listen, listen/sound.

John has said to me, in an email, 'but you might like to know that I was definitely playing the cymbal "badly" (inefficient technique) i.e. executing the action in whatever way was possible at the time relative to muscular tiredness or whatnot'.

After six hours you might end up with technical reservations, but, for me, the cymbal in such reverberence was magically split - harmonic melodies elucidated the semi-dark tunnel. When you'd had your fill, you left the way you came, reversing the envelope of proximity.

Although John and the cymbal were focal points, the autonomous audience was an essential element and the time/space itself perhaps the main player. David Ahern wrote in 1971 (see the April 1972 issue of Music Now),'The role of the composer or improvisor changes to that of sound architect. The notation for an improvisation is the performance space itself: one plays its acoustic properties, size, shape and surroundings'.

In a tangible sense, John's sounding/listening was one - the cymbal his hearing aid. Importantly, I didn't come away with the feeling John had 'produced himself as a commodity'. I was reminded of Mike Majkowski and Kim Myhr's focussed gesture, and the performance gave me a belief that John was revealing the world. As Ahern states, the notation was the performance space itself.

Ivan's immobility and Té's absence focussed attention on the creators' conception - they were less concerned with sound and more with script. Were the anti-dance, and the automated laptops, negative? Both were thought-provoking and, in the case of the anti-dance, amusing, but ultimately I still get excited when we play with sound - so the lensing of sound in the tunnel was, for me, a richer experience. And despite John's body being central to the work, his evocation to space wasn't made in his image, he expressed his power of dilating his being-in-the-world.

The land singing

The Dutch pianist, now resident of Turramurra in North Sydney, Cor Fuhler, asked me why there were no instruments in Australia before the invasion that started in 1788, except for sticks, bullroarer, gumleaf and the Yidaki. I had to admit to having no explanation.

There are other peoples around the world who can't travel with excess, who will still make ground harps or other disposables, and just to the North in PNG and Indonesia (trading partners of North Australian peoples) there's a wealth of instrumentalism.

Cor Fuhler.

Cor's mechanical and electrical instrumentalism sits deep within, and on top of, centuries-old European traditions of mechanical invention - he prepares his piano with gadgets and magnets like a tinkering engineer (he's Dutch, their entire landscape has been designed).

Indigenous Australia's technological paradigm was earthy, woven into land, and music accorded with that paradigm, (just as Té's absence accords with auto-functional computation).

There is no word for 'music' in Australian languages, the activity is inseparable from song-text, dance, ceremonies, the land itself and life. If you see yourself as inseparable from the earth, then your voice is the land singing. Traditions with few instruments and almost entirely based on singing are surely the closest to a direct corporality: it suggests a belief in the body - it also suggests a belief in community.

There is an issue to do with singing that impacts on this: part of what singers 'hear' is resonance within their body. It is therefore hard for singers to distinguish between their voice heard through flesh and bone and their voice resonating in the world - that's why recordings of our own voice are strange; we're not used to hearing it outside of us.

Singing teacher David L. Jones has written:

'One excellent tool in self-monitoring is that of using a tape recorder or mini-disc recorder. Achieving good auditory feedback that is clear is important in order for a singer to get a true concept of his/her sound. Learning to listen to one's own voice can be emotionally challenging because when played back, it never sounds as it does to the inner hearing. The inner hearing is always different than what plays back on tape or mini disc. I call this the acoustical deception or the false sound that we all receive inside our head.'

In Australia people have been singing outdoors for thousands of years - does that make a difference? As shown elegantly by Alvin Lucier's I am Sitting in a Room, rooms have resonant frequencies - they are often confusing places to sing into. Playing outdoors in Australia sounds are more themselves, less modified by architecture. Consequently we can better 'self-monitor'.

Was there no desire for instruments, in Australia, because people could hear their singing unboxed? In light of this, my question, 'is my sax then a hearing aid?' becomes more pertinent. Instruments take sounding outside of the body, we can then more clearly self-monitor, especially in rooms.

Complicating things in the modern age, most declamatory voices are amplified, recorded or transmitted. PA systems, telephones or playback disembodies the voice - modern singers hearing their voice coming from monitors on stage or a speaker stack 20 metres away often need their voice loud through monitors - is this to drown out their inner hearing?

Warmun, East Kimberly.
Photo © Jim Denley

In Warmun in the East Kimberly, I saw the Gija perform Joomba, their total art event. The singing, by a group of women on a dry Kimberly night, was one of the loudest, most direct sounds I've ever experienced - no need for a PA. Were they having problems with the acoustical deception of their inner hearing?

David L.Jones's terms 'self-monitoring' and 'inner-hearing' imply a culture of individualism, his text also begs the question, what did singers do before tape recorders? Surely they had feedback from their community. If they were having problems with acoustical deception, they trusted other listeners - is it so important what the individual thinks of his/her own singing?

Perhaps a culture unconcerned with individualism, with an earthy technological paradigm, where sounds exist in clear outdoor acoustics, has less need for hearing-aids - they can hear just fine. Perhaps a philosophy that sees no distinction between humanity and the world can't ask the question, 'Do we sound to elucidate the world or to confirm our place in it?'

Inscriptive instrumentalism

Looking at a less earthy paradigm, what are digital technologies doing to music and musicians' bodies? Are digital musicians hearing themselves just fine?

The DX7, a digital synth from the early 1980s, features 32 algorithms, each being a different arrangement of its six sine wave operators allowing for programming. Chris Abrahams stores 'sounds' as code on disks inserted into the hardware writing code by listening. The actual data that controls the sounds would be as meaningless to him as it would be to you or I - he works by ear. The resulting music (see for instance the CD Germ Studies), only seems to work when you've worked on the programming yourself, presets that come with the device don't have gravity - you're in danger of sounding as cheesy as a Yamaha demo.

The DX7 takes us along way from earthiness but Chris's playing on the synthesiser seems intensely physical - although I can't always see a causal link between what his hands do on keys and faders and results. So is the DX7 incorporated into his body? Is he involved in an entanglement of levels of perception, awareness, physicality and inscription?

Once again, plenty of precedent in Western music for that, but writing code in algorithms is different to conventional music notation - the code is only a set of possibilities, there is no determined sequence - and it's when that code and playing are intertwined we get music. Chris often seems surprised by the results.
You could argue that the commitment musicians like Jon Rose, Carolyn Connors or Laura Altman show on voice or instrument inscribes technique in muscular memory. Writing code in algorithms is different to habituating neurones and muscles, but it's just as valid. I'd argue Chris can be equally as entangled in this post-literate process, and, just like Chris, Jon, Carolyn and Laura, often surprised by the outcome of the instrumental dance.

Computers are meant to be the compelling tool of our age, and Thembi Soddell should then be a high priestess of the digital realm. She uses a more determined method than Chris, storing and recomposing pre-recorded samples on hard discs as sequences to be played and manipulated live. You know the sounds aren't synthesised, but they're hard to pin down.

Her new solo work The Absence of Inclination (see: Soundcloud) continues her interest in imbuing meaning to ambiguity, starting with multiple voices whispering, overtaken by a shocking wall of noise which gives way to a high pitch sine-tone. All this could be read as sound-as-materiality, but somehow you know she's aiming at surrealism - the sound stands for an experience of mental states.

With the first wave of laptopers in the mid 1990s, naysayers felt laptops were a betrayal. Clearly that was overreaction - great music has come out of using computers in the last 20 years and Thembi shows just how personal laptop music can be. Was the worry that we would end up as musical brains in vats, all concepts with no functioning bodies?

Thembi isn't engaged in athleticism like Kim Myhr or Mike Majkowski, but the anxiety overlooked the fact that performing music is about listening/sounding/listening/sounding. The system is always more than a human at a laptop with a mouse - amplification is present and perceiving amplified sound you have pre-inscribed or not, is a complex physical act.

Thembi diffuses off-stage, oriented amongst the audience where she has a better chance of hearing the PA in full glory. She's clearly not as gesturally demonstrative as Jon Rose or Chris Abrahams, she may not change her sequence of sounds substantially, but I'm sure her presence in performance is not gratuitous - there's plenty still to do, and she pushes PAs to dynamics extremes we've rarely heard before. Importantly, like Chris, there's authenticity to her material - nothing preset about her sources.

Ben Byrne does something different. Unlike Chris and Thembi, who carefully inscribe and then interact with the code in performance, Ben finds redundant data tapes and plays them on a cassette player designed for playing audio. It's deliberate misinterpretation or, to put it another way, genuine noise. Ben's main job is to start and stop - music emerges from and disappears into a mess of signals - and just like Peter Blamey's Forage, you're not meant to do this. Ben can't possibly claim to have honed the source - on the other hand he is the only musician who has ever sounded this material.

Chris's, Thembi's and Ben's methodologies are different to traditional inscription: scores. They're also different to each other - digital ain't one realm. Even Ben strangely owns his inscriptions, and they are all entangled in the creative act in a way that an interpreter of a score rarely can achieve. But they couldn't possibly hope to understand how the data underlying the sound is working. This is different to a composer imagining music, inscribing it, and, at a later date, someone interpreting those marks.

Their methodologies are new playgrounds within the digital realm. All three, entwined in their inscription, share a certain complication of gesture - their sound events are rarely controlled solely by one-to-one action. This makes their bodies differently entangled than those of analog instrumentalists but their entanglement is just as engaging because, ultimately, the medium they are entangled in is sound. Digital doesn't make their instrument set-ups (inclusive of amplification systems) lesser hearing aids.

Dilating our being-in-the-world

Music now plays within multiple technological paradigms. Indigenous Australian earthsong retains its power, Cor Fuhler's mechano-piano, or master (Tony Buck) and anti-master's (Nick Dan) co-ordination via sticks and pedals still excite, Marco Fusinato's guitar effacement through a chain of electronics amazes, Sky Needle's primitivism is fun, and the digi-inscriptor's audio is as rich as we've heard. From earthy to unearthly, we can be playful, transgressive and provide alternatives.

But all these examples require a sort of dance that gives scope for bodies to complicate intention. The entanglement of levels of perception, awareness and physicality is still a powerful way to think about music.
Absence of this dance is not necessarily negative, we hear music all around, us all the time, that is automated - Té's non-show produced a thought-provoking event - you might even say it was playful - Ivan Lisyak's immobile techno, fun.

But witnessing sound events by bodies sounding/listening keeps generating - I've not experienced anything like John Wilton's tunnel, Laura Altman and Monica Brooks's gentle banding, Peter Blamey's Forage, Kim Myhr's Singing Limbs, the Gija women unboxed in the Kimberly night, Oren Ambarchi and Ilan Volkov merged with the Adelaide Symphony, Matt Earle's fluidity, or Mike Majkowski's micro-gestural bass.

The earlier question (see part 1), posed in relation to Sky Needle, Kim Myhr and Mike Majkowskis' return-to-basic-gesture was, 'Do we sound out to elucidate the world or to confirm our place in it?' The lesson we might learn from Aboriginal Australia's disinterest in 'hearing aids' is that the real deception is to separate ourselves from the fabric of the world - we do much better when our sounding/listening plunges and is woven into it, and we do better when our dancing with instruments elicits events we can't predict with cognition alone.

Through music, we can express our power of dilating our being-in-the-world.

Further links

Jim Denley - AMC profile
The NOW now (thenownow.net)
Ivan Lisyak (http://aliasfrequencies.org)
- see also Kynan Tan and Andrew Brooks
Cor Fuhler - AMC profile; see also www.corfuhler.com
Chris Abrahams (wikipedia - see also www.thenecks.com)
Thembi Soddell (http://cajid.com/thembi/); Soundcloud
Ben Byrne (www.avantwhatever.com)

Jim Denley is instrumentalist, improviser and composer. More information.


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