Tuesday, February 15, 2011

11th meeting, Tuesday, February 22nd

MoKS presents:
with Dennis Tan
Tuesday, February 22rd
Eesti Rahva Muuseum, Tartu

*****THIS MONTH ONLY!!!*****
This month's helikoosolek is happening one day early due to the upcoming holiday. Please make a note of it!

helikoosolek:tartu's 11th edition features a visit from Singapore-born and Germany-based artist Dennis Tan. Dennis will be presenting a new interactive version of his work Breathe:

"A good friend once asked me, would there be sound if there were no human beings in this world?

Of course there would be sound, only there wouldn't be anyone to appreciate it.  

Sitting in a quiet room, I hear sounds of machines nearby, my neighbour listening to music and maybe a car driving by. What else do I hear? What is the softest sound in this room? I hear the rustle of my clothes when I move but what else? Closing my eyes, I start to concentrate on listening, deep listening. What do I hear? I hear my breathing. My inconsistent breathing, at times deep, at times light. This is the sound we constantly make, without much effort and without any intention. It just happens because we are alive.

For this edition of helikoosolek:tartu, I would introduce 4 notation symbols for breathing. The public will observe their own rhythm of breathing and learn how to notate them. After that each will create a composition for their own breathing and we will come together as a choir to perform the composition." -Dennis Tan, 2011

Dennis is currently an artist-in-residence at MoKS Centre for Art and Social Practice in Mooste. He will also be giving a presentation about his work at Tartu's Y Galerii on Wednesday, February 23rd at 7pm.

Helikoosolek:Tartu is organised my MoKS and supported by Eesti Rahva Muuseum and Tartu Kultuurkapital.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Questions for Steve Peters

I mentioned at the end of the 10th meeting report that i would forward along some of our group's questions about Steve Peters' work The Very Rich Hours to him for comment. He has graciously responded, and I've posted his answers below. He's has also expressed his willingness to continue the conversation, so if anyone has any further questions for him, feel free to send them along or put them in the comments section below. First, here again is the piece:

What is the intended role of the singing that is mixed into each piece? what is the music used?
The singers are singing the Latin names of endangered species in New Mexico - plants, animals, birds, insects, fish, etc. The music was improvised in the studio, with varying degrees of guidance from me. The five singers were each given a different list of species names and asked to improvise, so that each name was a short "piece" in itself. They had a continuous drone in their headphones to use as a reference pitch (a different pitch for each singer). They were each recorded separately in the studio, and were not allowed to hear what any of the other singers had done before them. In some cases I was more active in directing them, but with some singers I said almost nothing and just let them do what they did. Three of the singers specialize in both early music and contemporary classical. One of them specializes in contemporary classical, but is also trained in Persian and Javanese classical music. And one of them is mainly a jazz singer.

The original installation was made for a very beautiful old adobe (mud brick) church in New Mexico. I wanted to directly reference the historical use of the church, and also the idea of all creation as "holy", and I specifically used only the names of endangered species to highlight the urgency and tragedy of what is being lost. I liked the fact that Latin is both the spiritual language of the Church and of scientific classification. In the mix I treated the singers as if they were part of the environmental sound - moving around within the eight-channel audio field, sometimes "farther away", sometimes "closer".

Is it intentional that the spoken description is almost entirely visual description and not aural?
Absolutely. I felt there was enough audio content without the voices commenting on that, and I was more interested in the contrast between the sound and the visual. Specifically, each speaker was asked to choose a place to which they feel a deep personal connection or relationship, and they were directed to describe only what they were experiencing in that place at that very moment. I told them I was not interested in their stories about the place, or their opinions, or their past experiences, etc., but only in the their perception of the place in the moment. Of course, this is very difficult to do, and I edited out quite a bit of material that deviated from the instructions they were given. Emotional responses and feelings were allowed, but only within the context of the present. Overt references to past experiences were generally removed.

 Some people felt the spoken word was too overpowering and didn't allow enough time or space to experience the rest of the soundscape - any comment on that?
That is certainly a valid criticism, and something I struggled with a lot. In fact, I have thought about doing a mix with no speaking voices at all. But I am also very interested in the human experience of place and the more-than-human world, especially in the devotional sense. In a way, the piece is really focused on the human organism as one of perception and interpretation - the way we observe and place ourselves within the world and the meaning we make of it, and the affection/connection that comes from that. And I was also consciously addressing the anti-human bias within the sound art world - I don't mind that in this piece the environmental sounds play a background role to the voices. When working with sound it is so easy and tempting to remove the "human", to create a pristine sonic environment that is essentially an illusion. Sometimes that is the right thing to do, and I have certainly done it myself in other works. But in this case I wanted to acknowledge the role human perception plays in the creation of the world, and the feelings of love and loss that are intrinsically part of the human experience.

I was also very much dealing with the limitations of time - both the length of the piece itself and the amount of time I had in which to make it, as well as the amount of attention it could reasonably hope to sustain from listeners sitting in an otherwise empty church. Each of those recorded monologues was around 45 - 60 minutes (sometimes longer), and I mercilessly edited each one down to about 5 minutes. Within that, I tried to leave as much open space as I could for the other sounds and the singers to come through without it turning into a cluttered mess, and there is at least one minute of pure sound between each of the sections. If each section could have been twice as long, there would have been much more space for only sound. Given the time restrictions, I tried to use sounds that are continuous enough that the listener is able to get a good sense of them. The shorter sounds are woven into the holes in the spoken text and singing so they do not get buried.

I had originally thought that the speaking voices would be shuffled in a more random way, like the singers - that you would hear one person briefly, then a pause of random length, then another person, etc. That would definitely reflect my own typical artistic tendencies. But as I worked with the voices, even though they were heavily edited, I felt that there were narrative threads emerging that should be respected. Each person had a little story to tell about the place they loved, so I decided not to break those up, but to group them together sequentially within general kinds of places, beginning with "home" and moving further away to more remote locations. (I would also have liked to include a section on mountains, but there was simply not enough time.) I knew that not all listeners would stay to hear the entire piece, and I wanted to give them the opportunity to have a complete experience in a short time, to hear what each person had to say, rather than the sense that they were dipping into a completely random thing that was essentially "the same" throughout. You can tell that each section is a short story, and hopefully that encourages listeners to stay to hear the next one.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

10th meeting report

A great turnout for Carlo Cubero's talk about the use and role of sound within the field of anthropology. Carlo himself has this to say:

In my talk I wanted to address several issues that are highlighted when a social science - like anthropology - engages with the field of sound studies. On first impression, it would seem that the connections between sound studies and anthropology would be apparent and easy to explain. Anthropology claims to be the study of the lived experience, of the quality of social relations that make up our daily lives from a holistic and cross cultural perspective. Given that sound is an integral aspect of our experiences of being human and of living in the world, it would seem evident that anthropology be interested in how is it that people perceive and design sound in different parts of the world. However, during my initial research into this matter, I was surprised that there is not a wealth of research material on this subject. If anything, I found that the researchers that look into the relationship between sound and society, by and large, approach the matter from a multi-disciplinary perspective. But as for anthropology itself, the study of sound has mostly been addressed through the study of music and the social and political representations that can be articulated through music. But sound, as a social experience in itself, has not played a major role in the development of the discipline. And yet, sound producing technology has always been present throughout the history of the discipline. Tape recording interviews, musical groups, and the use of audiovisual material have been a central aspect of ethnographic research. However, the tendency has been to look at these materials as research materials, as data from where symbolic, structural, or political representations can be extracted from. Methodologically, treating sound recordings in this way, suggests that the material of the recording is consistent and objective, that it is reproducing interactions in the field with fidelity. It also suggests that the recordings do not produce knowledge in themselves, but that mainly lay inert until the expertise of an anthropologist decodes the material and makes it intelligible cross-culturally. And this is one of the first conceptual hurdles that one faces, as an anthropologist, when engaging with sound studies. If a sound ethnography is to seek to understand the different ways in which sound inter-relates with the social experience, how can we use sound on its own terms and expect it to communicate cross-culturally? In other words, what kind of technical and conceptual tools can we use, as anthropologists, to communicate a sense of the sonic across cultural contexts that are not related? How do we deal with the issue of cultural difference? How can we use sound in a way that does not exoticize cultures? 

Current generations of anthropologists have been reviewing the paradigm that looks at the materials collected during fieldwork as mere data and started to look at the experience of doing fieldwork itself as a suitable means of understanding social relations cross-culturally. This kind of approach places the ethnographic encounter at the centre of the research text. Methodologically, it is an approach that is practise centred rather than meaning centred. Better said, the quest for cultural meanings does not lie exclusively in understanding the discourses through intellectual exercise, but also includes corporeal and affective dimensions of knowledge. That in the practise of doing participant observation of engaging with culture through associations, of focusing on the process of knowledge production a more open ended and processual understanding of culture emerges. The questions posed by this kind of anthropology do not part from the cultural comparative approach, but centres its attention on the inter-subjective encounter in the field. It asks about the quality of relationships that are embedded in the text, its asks questions about the narrative and the ethical and methodological process of constructing the text, it seeks to produce a knowledge that is corporeal – which is felt in the body – rather than exclusively intellectual. It seeks to go provide the “reader” with a sense of being there by representing the fieldwork experience on its own terms rather than relying on intellectual schemes that lie outside of the context of encounter. A result of this approach is the creation of texts that place the reader in the centre of the action - they give a sense of the textures of the place, of the various subtleties that makes life meaningful. For some authors, it is an approach that approximates to giving the reader a sense of being there. The search for these kind of interactive texts has led to anthropologists to consider the limitations of academic text as a means of rendering the affective, improvisational, sensual, and chaotic dimensions of daily life. Some more salient examples of these approaches are ethnographies that addressed the format and politics of ethnographic writing and looked into formats such as novels, poetry, autobiography, and other means of experimenting with the ethnographic genre. It is my contention that sound studies has a great deal to contribute to this kind of scholarship for it engages the anthropologist through a more experiential and sensual dimension of producing knowledge.
This is an ideal and the question still remains on whether this paradigm is successful in being consistent and convincing. In my view, a very important issue to look into is to look into how other disciplines and paradigms have addressed similar issues. For example, in architecture there is a whole field and speciality that focuses on acoustic design for the construction of concert halls and churches. Musicians are constantly seeking new ways to produce music or to re-interpret and re-contextualise the classics. Sound artists are continuously interacting with engineers and designers as a means to seek different ways to articulate an experience sonically. This kind of interdisciplinarity is what I have attempted to follow in the designing of the course "Soundscape: Perception and Design" to be offered during the spring semester of 2011 in the Anthropology Department of Tallinn University.   
- Carlo Cubero, Tallinn, 2011 

We also introduced a new segment to the Helikoosolek, the Ear Cleaner, or opening listening session. In future we will begin each meeting by listening to a recording (composition, sound poem, field-recording, radio show, etc, etc...) proposed either by myself, or a member of our group. If you have any suggestions for recordings that could be suitable for a Helikoosolek Ear Cleaner, let me know!

Last night we listened to a piece by American artist Steve Peters entitled Canyons from his online release The Very Rick Hours. You can listen to and/or download it here:

You can also here these pieces as featured in the last several editions of framework, the weekly field-recording based radio show that I produce:


The Very Rich Hours presents an interesting mix of field-recording, spoken word, and choral singing. it raised many questions in our group: was it intentional that all of the spoken word description was specifically of visual aspects of the space? What role, conceptually, did the singing play in the work? Did the spoken word add to or detract from the experience of the composed soundscapes?

I plan to ask these questions of Steve himself. I'll post his responses here.