(In a Forest of Signs)

3.3: Interpretation: The Recordings

From a musical perspective, the work began with patching a simple, single waveform drone, and then using the score to initiate subtle changes over an extended duration – frequency modulation, the addition of a secondary oscillator, frequency beating/phasing, waveshaping, and filtering.  Although the use of drone has played a significant role in my practice to date, its function here was initially more pragmatic – it offered me the simplest possible sonic base, from which the text of the score could coerce the most potential.  Contextually speaking however, the musical genre of drone is synonymous with Other - in so far as it relies upon the perception of tones so long that they preclude any totalic sense of their being - and exists as a form of noise.  If noise is not so much unwanted sound as it is the perception of something beyond our control,[1] the incomprehensible length of the drone is noisy by definition.  For the noise-art theorist Joseph Nechvatal, noise “negates artistic representations (and all they imply), thereby reaffirming a consciously divergent way of perceiving and existing” (Nechvatal, p.23, 2011) – a description equally applicable to the drone-work of La Monte Young.  Noise, like drone, exemplifies the break between sense (sensible) and sense (sensation) that my research relies upon, an effect Nechvatal calls “the mind/body problem, the metaphysical problem of how the mind and body (and I would stress the body’s eyes and ears) are related to one another, and of how consciousness relates to conjectural substantiality” (Nechvatal, p.29, 2011).  This lack of a cohesive sense inherent to the form means drones are perceived not in terms of distinct changes but of evolution, the near unperceivable differences that cause them to mutate over time.  To listen to noise or drone, is to be listening for a sense that is not immediately accessible.  It is, as with Beuys’s Coyote (arguably a work of noise since it inherently problematises ideas of comprehension and control) to present a form that reminds us of the limits of reason and understanding.

Although drone music was my starting point, I was as much interested in exploring the slow evolution of timbre and frequency as I was similar approaches to rhythm.  If drone serves to obfuscate structure by relying on the emergent properties of long held tones rather than distinct changes – as in the work of Young[2] - that same obfuscation can be applied to rhythm through the use of repetition and pseudo-random elements.  What duration affords Young in his emergent drone, is equally present in the emergent rhythm and melody of, say, Morton Feldman.  By allowing the space between notes or beats to extend beyond the mind’s ability to recognise them as a melody or pattern, or altering the placement or pitch of individual notes/beats within a sequence over an extended time, I could place these elements beyond sense in the same manner that drone affords.  Practically, the implementation of rhythmic and melodic elements was based upon the use of shift registers, phase-locked loops and other variants of pseudo-random voltage modules.  Starting with a series of generative patterns or pitches, the score was applied to the frequency and routing of gates, triggers, and slewed-voltages, altering the amount and shape of modulation applied to its rhythmic and melodic structures.  In this way, what might only be a few seconds of core material could last indefinitely, with the inter-linked modulations (usually based upon a single, imperfect/jittered clock source) adding augmentation to three or four otherwise syncopated voices.  The abstract nature of the text inspired a slow evolution of the sonic material - shifting the relationship between beats or frequency (“rent featureless or carved into one of several rotating rhythms”); defining or altering the timbre of the voices (“cleanliness, artificiality, mechanisation”); determining the density or polyphony (“and with three or four lines being drawn at once, three of four tongues”); amending the structure (“an almost unperceivable deviance from an otherwise ______ line”); and making dynamic changes (“everything channelled through one weak limb”).  In this way, each new word, line or page of text served to subtly shift otherwise repetitive sequences, or static drones, in a new direction, often based not on some quality of an imagined over-arching structure, but on the nature of the minor, emergent changes that preceded it.  The music, as with the abstract text that was its source, never leads to a sensible, totalitarian outcome but to the constant unearthing of new potentials.  Rather than focussing on defined structures – verses, choruses, crescendos or cadences – the composition works instead with seemingly organic movements across time.[3]

As much as a drone or noise-based practice might wish to adopt an approach entirely beyond the realms of semiotic apperception – the ‘pure resonance’ (Duckworth, 2012) or ‘super-sensible’ (Zumdick, 2013) of Young and Beuys respectively – I feel it is churlish to deny that the materiality of electronic music might conjure up certain images for its audience.[4] Indeed, part of the participatory aspect of my practice is to deliberately play upon such associations – to harness them as a means of engaging those embroiled in the musical event autonomously. That is, to ensure such associations will spur a creative rather than simplistically reactive response.  With this in mind, my work utilised a number of more recognisable elements, in the form of field recordings, synthesised bowls/bells, and the human voice, each chosen precisely because they might invoke certain existing cognitive and perceptual frameworks.  Singing bowls, as with their use in the live performances, reference religious and spiritual rituals, pointing to both the coming together of a community and personal well-being (in yoga and sound healing).  The use of a non-linguistic human voice reflects the disjunction between sense and comprehension, whilst being a literal interpretation of the text (“attempt not to overthink it, allow unmetered sensuality, a shamanic verse with fire or stick”).  Likewise, the implementation of field recordings of structured walks, car alarms, a Turkish Imam and a mimetic chorus of stray dogs, reflected social and temporal concerns regarding movement and Otherness.

By placing these recognisable elements within an otherwise abstract composition, the goal was to disrupt their typical connotations – rather than offering a linear path from the object to its closest cultural reference point, their inclusion compromises their associative rigidity, highlighting both their abstraction - that they have been momentarily divorced from their cultural context - and the unrealised potential already present in, but circumvented by, an over-reliance on the limited existing associative narratives.  As with my approach to temporality in general, associations serve to tie the activity of consciousness to the auditory plane of the composition.  According to Luhmann, consciousness is a temporally bound operation, reliant upon “fast, unconsciously performed consistency checks, and above all on its ability to use its capacity for awareness economically by omitting things from view. Seeing is overlooking” (Luhmann, p.22, 2000).  By breaking down the coupling between recognition and habit, seeing and doing, art can undermine the conditioned responses that a community binds to the objects of experience – it is an autonomous, participatory tool reliant upon the existing, active, cognitive processes of the perceiver.  Art brings objects into resonance by “using perceptions contrary to their primary purpose” (Luhmann, p.23, 2000).  Since this happens in tandem with any existing associations – consciousness doesn’t forget, but advances upon what is present – it is an operation of time.  Art[5] “does not seek automatically to repeat familiar meanings; although it must draw on such meanings, it instead aims at disrupting automatization and delaying understanding” (Luhmann, p.25, 2000).

[1] As the noise theorist Paul Hegarty suggests, “noise happens to ‘me’, is beyond my control, and somehow exceeds my level of comfort with the soundworld I or we inhabit. In some way, noise threatens me, is part of the other I define myself against” (Hegarty, p.4, 2010).
[2] “By about the thirty-minute mark, however, my observational modes of thought having exhausted themselves as they circled above – without ever actually breaking the surface of – the continual (and, I should add, characteristically quite loud) sound, I found myself listening to the perfect fifth itself. Immersed in the vibration of the sustained interval, I eventually could not help but notice the brief moments of faint beating brought on by the slightest change in intonation… the upper harmonics and difference tones that came in and out of focus as the instruments resonated with one another and the space surrounding them” (Young, in Grimshaw, pp.49-50, 2011).
[3] Although I am hesitant to suggest my practice is directly inspired by (or even, on a surface level, similar to) Feldman in the same way it has been by Young, the application of the score has enabled me to develop an approach to repetition, variation, and symmetry that seems to overlap with many of Feldman’s concerns. This is no doubt due to our related starting points – whilst I work with abstract text, Feldman’s work with abstract painting led him to develop what he called the auditory plane – “a plane of attention, seeded with sound posing between silences, extending in space — that is, time — as a sensitised continuum, both the work’s substance and medium” (O’Doherty, p.64, 2010).  Just as the abstract text of my score can be used to transcend many of the more narrative or linear aspects of musical language in favour of a more sensory, experiential approach, what Feldman borrowed from visual art ‘was not content, or style, or historical connection, but form and what he called ‘amounts’ — ‘touch, frequency, intensity, density, ratio, colour’” (O’Doherty, p64, 2010).
[4] As the semiotician Roland Barthes makes clear, the idea of a pure, culturally untethered stimuli is fundamentally problematic, since we never encounter “a literal image in a pure state. Even if a totally ‘na├»ve’ image were to be achieved, it would immediately join the sign of naivety and be completed by a third – symbolic – message” (Barthes, p.42, 1977). Though he is primarily discussing advertising images, I would suggest his position is equally applicable to all aesthetic forms.
[5] It is worth noting that Luhmann is speaking specifically of text-art here, but given that my work is based upon a text-score, and that he uses text-art in comparison to the structural coupling of formal language, I believe it can be applied to any work that seeks to dissolve the relationship between communication and comprehension.
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