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10 September 2008

Vanishing Under the Influence

Natasha Anderson Image: Natasha Anderson  
© Marion Innocenzi

I find it hard to become excited about questions of music process when they're expressed as falling in line behind the banner of either improvisation or composition. Individual processes can be fascinating, but arguments as to which method produces the more engaging and vital music are like a dog chasing its tail. Surely our serial killer fantasies have been polished equally between the torture of duly placed dots and vapid, meandering improvisations. Must we really make a choice between marvelling at the existence of Xenakis's Persepolis and being ecstatic at witnessing the incredible real-time improvisation skills of a Jerome Noetinger? (The French musique-concrete artist uses a Revox B-77 reel-to-reel tape machine in live performance, beginning with no prerecorded sound, and recording and processing loops in real time. He manipulates the machine, the loops and the electromagnetic signal itself, creating in the process truly virtuosic compositions.)

For myself, I wouldn't say that I often improvise, and I'm still somewhat startled by the laden moniker of 'composer'. My own practice – which variously comprises music and audiovisual performance, installation, sound design and composition – inevitably finds its concerns and processes in a personal mishmash of training, predilections, experience, visual arts interests and ever-expanding musical horizons. Coming from a classical background, my habit is to meticulously notate my solos and multimedia works. However, these scores are not meant for anyone else's consumption; in fact anyone else would be 'These scores only sketch the most basic practicalities; everything else is in the playing. They are functional documents, mnemonic aids that tend to become outmoded.'hard-pressed to make sense of their idiosyncratic language. Expressed in eccentric yet exact shorthand, this language refers to a private lexicography of gestures and sounds. It encompasses both the particular Max/MSP patch in question and specific instrumental and vocal gestures. These scores only sketch the most basic practicalities; everything else is in the playing. They are functional documents, mnemonic aids that tend to become outmoded. As they age, they slip into being mere nostalgic travelogue, scrappy graphic reminders of a time and a place.

This private lexicon of gestures, sounds and electronic processing is the result of attempting to develop a language that incorporates my classical training (deconstructed woodwind articulations and the like), but which goes much further into ideas of framing sound and sound production in performance. By constantly and rapidly shifting between such opposing forces as digital and acoustic sound, abject and processed gestures, extremes of frequencies and visual and sonic moments, I aim to create multiple and conflicting points of focus for the audience. The source of my sounds, images and gestures – whether electronic, instrumental or bodily – become tangled and confused. Part of the intent is to foreground myself, the musician, as a framed and gendered bodily presence. The original motivation behind this was to throw certain tacit assumptions about sound, its ownership and provenance, into question. Now I'm not so sure where the whole thing's at.

Perhaps the ultimate project I've focused in this direction is Maculae (2007), a solo audiovisual work in which both the audio and video is played and processed in real time. By attaching a multi sensor environment to the Paetzold contrabass recorder, I can not only exert more immediate and organic control over the digital signal processing, but also exploit in the process the semantics of my particular library of playing gestures. Thus, for instance, the light sensor is placed on the labium of the instrument, whereby the inflection of an acoustic shriek or low frequency guttural articulation becomes linked to the visibility of a particular physical gesture and/or projected image. When activated by violent key slaps, pressure sensors under particular keys trigger certain sounds and/or images, and a slide sensor placed along the side enables suggestive sweeps of this palpably phallic instrument to be linked to specific visual and/or sonic outcomes.

The video digitally processed for this performance comprises a bank of self-portraits – framed gestures and masquerades – and a static, single viewpoint of multiple doorways. The figurative source material is constantly modulating; fragments advance and recede from blackness, dependent on the manipulation of light. Ephemeral glimpses of representation – of supposed representation – and abstract light gestures form and decompose precipitately. Gestures distil into essential pixels. Certain ambivalences in these images reflect my uneasiness at this compulsion to create the curious condition of framing and 'playing' myself. Other sources of inspiration include Thierry Kuntzel's video works, of which Raymond Bellour has written, 'the image takes shape while vanishing under the influence of desire and fear'* and a conscious, invigorating engagement with the framing tradition of female artists such as Hannah Wilke, the Countess di Castiglione and Cindy Sherman.

As to whether this is composed or improvised – well, it's a mixture of both. The video is composed to the extent that it was plotted and then filmed before being broken down into the gestures and momentary fragments that make up the work's visual bank. My aging laptop's limited real time capabilities also dictate the prior processing of some of the projections. The structure of the audio and the way it works with the images is subject to a macro-structure; all of which exists in a score. More than that, some passages are articulated and scored down to the note while yet others are much more at the discretion of the individual performance. To me it really doesn't matter. I was merely working with my ad hoc collection of personal processes, trying to achieve the best possible realisation of the ideas. In other situations – for instance when I'm composing for theatre or dance – some material is pre-composed, some is improvised and a lot is assembled and moulded on the computer. The directors and choreographers who receive the final product on a CD couldn't give a toss as to whether its seeds resided in Finale or Pro Tools. Is there a reason why, within the music industry, we should care?

Of course much of this is wilfully naïve, or at least skirts around the meat of the topic. Anyone with a teenage essay on Freud or Hegel up their sleeve has already deduced that the seeds of many of my 'ideas' rest in a pouting reaction to classical music's fetishisation of the score, its conception of Western art music as intrinsically abstract and incorporeal, and its heavy investment in a sadistic hierarchy that sanctifies abjection. Whether pontificating from a cultivated high aesthetics or its inevitable 'doh' moment of arriving at an aesthetics of the low, the business of Western art music would seem to trade on absolutes, not process.

You would think there was some refuge to be found in the world of experimental, 'exploratory' music – and there is, to an extent. At least within this world lip service is payed to an openness of process and instrumental practice. There is some truly joyous and unique music to be found within this domain, with practitioners from all genres meeting and finding a measure of freedom and inspiration. Yet its gates do tend to be guarded by men sporting carefully NapiSan-ed cult label t-shirts. Construct a noise set and you're an honorary member. Spoof a loud, low frequency, throbbing passage, and if you can manage to tuck your irony into your handbag for the night, free drinks may flow.

It is, of course, not necessary to take any notice of either camp. Improvised or composed, who cares? The important thing would seem to be to take responsibility in trying to make the most interesting and engaging music possible. However you want to manage that is up to you.

* Raymond Bellour, 'Thierry Kuntzel and the Return of Writing', transl. Annwyl Williams, Camera Obscura 11, Fall 1983, pp 29-59.

Natasha Anderson is a Melbourne audio/visual artist who works variously as a performer, composer, sound designer and installation artist. Recent endeavours include composition for Sydney Theatre Company’s The Year of Magical Thinking (dir. Cate Blanchett); Carriagework’s site specific The Stirring (prod. De Quincey Co); Peter Fraser’s Tarkovsky’s Horse (prod. The Weather Exchange); performances at the French festivals Musique Action and Festival de Musiques Innovatrices; and gigs at MIBEM08, Liquid Architecture, NowNow, Melbourne International Arts Festival and Auckland’s Alt.Music. In November she will be doing a solo tour of Europe.


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