(In a Forest of Signs)

6.2: New Communions

The brief I provided to my collaborators was simple – we were to bring instruments to the church, lock ourselves in for an extended period, and explore how the instruments, and ourselves, responded to the acoustic and aesthetic properties of the building. The recording of our explorations would proceed hand in hand with the creative act – a recording studio would be set up in the church to capture everything we did, as well as pen and paper used to produce a series of instructions for future collaborators.  This document, created in tangent with my own experiments outside of the church, would form a cohesive score by which to orientate our movements.

The demands of making such a recording forced us to directly engage with ideas of movement, embodiment, sense, and non-linearity.  Rather than relying upon the prior utility of the church, the space was repurposed with a view to capturing its strongest sonic presence – whilst the presbytery, sanctuary, and quire traditionally might be used to project sound around the space, our goal was to record not only the sound source, but also the buildings acoustic response.  As such, most of our movements took place across the transept, ambulatory, and crossing, with the more traditionally performative spots of the presbytery, sanctuary, and nave instead housing the microphones used to document our performances.  Although there were some fixed objects we wished to record – notably the organ and piano – much of our initial work in the church focussed on trying to develop an understanding of the acoustic, historic, and social aspects of the building.  The sessions would begin with a series of exercises – the participants moving or dancing through the church, reciting passages from the texts already present at the site (bibles, fire exit signs, etc.), and discussing the objects that resided there (the stained glass, the stonework, the community notice board, etc.).  This would be followed by more sound-specific work - measuring the reflections and frequency response in different areas of the building, capturing impulse responses, documenting the relationship between the external noise of the street and the internal acoustics, exploring the effect of spatiality and reflection on improvisation/collaboration, and testing the sonic potential of existing resonant objects (pews, bells, railings, etc.).  My goal was that our experience of the church site would be continuous, with no distinction drawn between the musical and contextual elements with which we worked.  The social history, architectural traits, and acoustic properties, would be treated as a single common material with which my collaborators could work.   Our performances were informed by discussion and research upon the historical and cultural heritage of the site, with our compositions punctuated by discussion upon the religious and social connotations of its location and utility.  The prior experiences and extra-musical specialities of my performers – an expert in site-specific sound-recording, a Theologian, and a statistician for the local council - were fed into these discussions, allowing us to further blur the distinction between art-making and a more general social practice. 

By attempting to circumvent any prevailing sensibility – the paths one is supposed to walk, the reverences or actions one usually ascribes to objects – I wished to reverse many of the abstractions that the likes of Small, Ingold and Rancière claim have been enforced by the western cultural and epistemological tradition.  If, as Ingold suggests, our innate understanding of place as “a knot tied from multiple and interlaced strands of movement and growth” is now perceived instead “as a node in a static network of connectors” (Ingold, p.75, 2007), the temporal and spatial disjunction of the church allowed us to reconfigure potentially static, linear responses to the environment.  The scores text allowed us to respond to the building and its contents in manners with which we were not immediately comfortable – attempting to ‘stand for a moment in every corner’, ‘touch every wall or edge’, and to ‘climb as high or as low’ as possible, encouraged us to move beyond our usual methods of engagement.[i] Likewise, the community that formed around these unusual interactions - taking place over extended time periods in the dead of night – soon began to develop its own normative behavior (ways of playing or being together) far removed from our actions outside of that space.  This development was most obvious in the nature of our extended, semi-improvised sessions.  Based loosely around a few distributed sentences of score, we found ourselves playing for up to 40 minutes at a time, often in near darkness, only communicating through the often subtle variations in our individual performances.  Melodic, harmonic and rhythmic changes would be constructed as we went, not with a view to completing recognised patterns or scales, but rather appearing as undulating waves of consonant and dissonant matter, or emergent changes of density born from a confluence of the minor inconsistencies of its players. Working with percussion, violin, French horn, piano, voice, saxophone, organ, and synthesiser, we would explore different formations across the site, working with between one and four players at any one time and allowing our proximity and the spaces resonance to impede and promote new relationships between us.  The resulting composition/recording focused as much on the instruments as it did the ambient noise of the building – the clicks from its ancient ceilings, its archaic fans, and its overpowering reverberations.  Microphones were set up to record the body of the church, alongside its organ loft, kitchen, bell tower, and external arches, allowing us to concurrently document the space from a multitude of positions, with performers moving between these spaces as they manipulated the environment and their instruments.

This evolved into a body of work that walked a fine line between embodied improvisation and environmental communion. The same extract of score might be played multiple times, in multiple formations, with hugely varied results, despite being guided by similar rules regarding space, environment, temporality, and interplay, as taken from the score by its performers.  The involvement of multiple collaborators allowed me to explore the resonance and interpretability of the language that comprised the score.  Text was amended to incorporate passages that seemed to invoke the most performative potential – with a balance being sought between language that was specific enough to provide creative contours for exploration, and open-ended enough to allow my collaboraters to make critical decisions concerning the nature of the composition.  Often, my own preconceptions about the utility of the text was over-ridden by the responses I received.  An initial reliance on analogy as a creative device was severely culled over these sessions, as my collaborators struggled with what they perceived as unrelated or unworkable literal instructions (such as “play with the feet instead of the hands” or “with three of four tongues”).  Instead, I found they often responded better to associative language that referenced common cultural stimuli.  My primary collaborator, who was unfamiliar with both improvisation and experimental scoring techniques, responded strongly to narrative descriptions based upon made-up scenes from science-fiction television shows, providing live soundtracks - replete with complex ideas and developments - to unseen images as they were described to him.  Collaboration around a pre-existing cultural object or theme thus produced far more creative outcomes than what I had previously considered to be a freedom in fairly abstract language,[ii] which more often than not lacked the framework through which my collaborator felt confident to experiment.  It seemed that the open-ended nature of overtly poetic or abstract language risks circumventing the concrete nature of the object, the Other from which a self can re-sound.  Just as with Massumi’s proclamation, “neither object nor subject: event” (Massumi, p.6, 2011), creativity seemed to germinate not from a completely blank page, but from the potentiality of an object – the score’s text - that doesn’t oppose the abstract, but embodies it. As the remaining trace of a former moment in time, the object is not temporally static, pointing only to what it was, but fuels the subject to reach beyond any present sense.  As Massumi suggests, “the objective belongs to the immediate past of just this occasion” – in this instance, our shared cultural memory of science-fiction television. And yet, the object also points forward, it “just as immediately belongs to that occasions proximate future” (Massumi, p.9, 2011).  Put simply, the object, as an abstraction in time, allows us to imagine what might come next.[iii]

Another major aspect of the collaborations was that they allowed me to research the nature of a creative community in a highly constructed space, somewhat divorced from the general social activity of which its participants are typically engaged.  If both the interpretations and interventions often sought to challenge the sanctity of designated art spaces in favour of a creatively resonant and universally accessible everyday, the church location amplified the kind of social divisions that the closeted art-event promotes, as critiqued by the likes of Christopher Small.  Entering at night and locking ourselves in, our explorations were conducted in secret, despite the building’s rich contemporary and historic social connotations.  Innately hierarchical in structure, the church’s architecture and fixtures – with its golden rostrums and ornate altar, situated at the head of a cross - promotes the dominance of its primary performers (priests, choristers, etc.).  The church has a specific social function, and commands a specific utility and gravitas for the objects that comprise it.  And yet, the space of the church is also the space of the socially outcast – the poor, disabled, homeless, and drug-addicted are all catered for by the various food banks and support groups run from the site, and our sessions were often interrupted by the sounds of its more typical inhabitants knocking on its doors or sleeping in its arches.[iv]  Our commandeering of the church – indeed, our very desire to seek out non-linear ways to interact with it – mirrors this duality, wherein we are both deliberately engaging with the specific just-so that is the social and acoustic resonance of the site, and simultaneously attempting to circumvent it. If, as Small suggests, “every building, from the tiniest hut to the biggest airport terminal, is designed and built to house some aspect of human behaviour and relationships, and its design reflects its architects’ assumptions about that behaviour and those relationships” (Small, p.20, 1998), the changing social function of the church, and our navigation of it, exemplifies the human capacity to re-configure such a linear, top-down approach.  As an inner-city church in an area of social deprivation, many of its regular inhabitants forge a pragmatic utility that goes well beyond the intended reverie of those who built it.  Likewise, the community formed with my collaborators sought to reach beyond any cursory or predetermined utility – our actions sought to reconfigure the space of community and the terms of our participation within it.  In contrast to contemporary criticisms of the specific art-space’s divorce from general social activity, it was by virtue of its separation from the everyday that we could explore and repurpose its inherent resonance in such detail.

[i] Our movements through the church were as such synonymous with the innate, autonomous, super-sensible participation that governs all of a communities interactions.  If, as Ingold suggests, “people in modern metropolitan societies find themselves in environments built as assemblies of connected elements”, this focus on an embodied re-articulation of objects and their perceived affordances, points to a reality in which people continue to cut their own paths through shared space, to devise shortcuts and to walk on the grass – a world of active participation in which people “continue to thread their own ways through the environment, tracing paths as they go” (Ingold, p.75, 2007).
[ii] I appreciate there is a question to be raised here concerning the perceived openness of poetic language – however, its utility in the score is not as a form that eschews all existing signifiiers, but simply as a medium that can offer enough plasticity to point to multiple potentialities in its interpretation.
[iii] The object, replete with its associate meaning, provides a horizon upon which the perceiver can strain towards further possible, as yet unrealised meaning. As Levinas makes clear, “signiification does not console a disappointed perception, it just makes perception possible. Pure receptivity, like pure sensibility without signification, would be a myth or abstraction” (Levinas, p.11, 2006).
[iv] Indeed, on one occasion we witnessed a man falling asleep in the building’s only night-time entrance/exit, forcing us to play our music as loudly and frenetically as possible in the hope of waking him so that we could leave.
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