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.

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