Monday, September 29, 2014

Sound/Video Installation: (The) Nature (of) Sound

Well, okay, I’ve resisted hyping my own work in this blog, but since I haven’t had time to write a lot about any other music I’ve seen recently, I decided I might as well.

“(The) Nature (of) Sound” is a sound/video installation currently running (until 10/24/14) at Jack Straw New Media Gallery (4261 Roosevelt Way NE, Seattle, WA). The video part is a series of slides, abstracted from photographs of natural environments, slowly cross-fading. The audio part is environmental sounds (some originally recorded by Jonathon Storm; mostly easily recognizable, some computer-processed) and several instrumental tracks, overlapped in random sequences, played (from a graphic score called a “soundscroll”) by Aaron Keyt, Indigo Pathfinder, Jay Hamilton, Keith Eisenbrey, and myself. Audience members, if they are musicians, may add to the “soundtrack” by playing along with the same graphic score.

An excerpt from the soundtrack is available for download here.

An hour-long Youtube version (with the graphics) can be seen here.

Following are from a presentation I gave last Friday, concerning the work.

Literary and other Textual Sources

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that, when I wak’d,
I cried to dream again.

Shakespeare: The Tempest (1610)

May or may not refer to “natural” sounds – there were a lot of strange things going on, on that island… I’ve also seen the same quote used to refer to gamelan music on the island of Java (Neil Sorrell, A Guide to the Gamelan).

Sometimes, on Sundays, I head the [distant] bells… when the wind was favorable, a faint, sweet, and as it were, natural melody, worth importing into the wilderness. At a sufficient distance over the woods this sound acquires a certain vibratory hum, as if the pine needles in the horizon were the strings of a harp which it swept. All sound heard at the greatest possible distance produces one and the same effect, a vibration of the universal lyre, just as the intervening atmosphere makes a distant ridge of earth interesting, to our eyes, by the azure tint it imparts to it. There came to me in this case a melody which the air had strained, and which had conversed with every leaf and needle of the wood, that portion of the sound which the elements had taken up and modulated and echoed from vale to vale. The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and the charm of it. It is not merely a repetition of what was worth repeating in the bell, but partly the voice of the wood.

Henry David Thoreau: Walden: or, Life in the Woods (1854)

Natural (and not) sounds modified by nature.

Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth;
Break forth in song, rejoice, and sing praises.
…Let the sea roar, and all its fullness.
The world and those who dwell in it;
Let the rivers clap their hands;
Let the hills be joyful together before the Lord.

Psalm 98:4, 7-8 NKJV

A possible meaning to nature: behind, over, and under all natural sound, there may be a continuous song to God.

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the titihoya, one of the birds of the veld. Below you is the valley of the Umzimkulu, on its journey from the Drakensberg to the sea; and beyond and behind the river, great hill after great hill; and beyond and behind them, the mountains of Ingeli and East Griqualand.

The grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. It holds the rain and the mist, and they seep into the ground, feeding the streams in every kloof. It is well-tended, and not too many cattle feed upon it; not too many fires burn it, laying bare the soil. Stand unshod upon it, for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator. Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and man is destroyed.

Where you stand the grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. But the rich green hills break down. They fall to the valley below, and falling, change their nature. For they grow red and bare; they cannot hold the rain and mist, and the streams are dry in the kloofs. Too many cattle feed upon the grass, and too many fires have burned it. Stand shod upon it, for it is coarse and sharp, and the stones cut under the feet. It is not kept, or guarded, or cared for, it no longer keeps men, guards men, cares for men. The titihoya does not cry here anymore.

Alan Paton: Cry, the Beloved Country (1948)

Humans’ interactions with nature are not always benevolent. (That’s probably too obvious to mention.)

The car coasted to a stop along the gravelly roadside. In a moment, [Susan] was out the door and bounding across the desert. She skipped and whirled and cartwheeled among the prickly natives [plants]. She shook hands with a yucca, waltzed with a saguaro. She plucked a red blossom from a barrel cactus and fixed it in her hair. … She snapped a needle from a cactus and with the slapstick pantomime of a circus clown pretended to pick her teeth with it.

Mr. McShane and I were leaning on the car, laughing, when suddenly she stopped, cocked her heard, and stared off in another direction. She stayed like that, stone still, for a good two minutes, then abruptly turned and came back to the car.

Her face was thoughtful. “Mr. McShane,” she said as the teacher drove off, “do you know any extinct birds?”

“…The moa. … Huge bird … Make an ostrich look small. Twelve, thirteen feet tall. …Died out hundreds of years ago. Killed off by people.”

“Half their size,” said Susan. … “Did moas have a voice?” …[She] looked out the window at the passing desert. “I heard a mockingbird back there. And it made me think of something [the old professor] said. … He said he believes mockingbirds may do more than imitate other living birds. He thinks they may also imitate the sounds of birds that are no longer around. …[that] the sounds of extinct birds are passed down the years from mockingbird to mockingbird. …when a mockingbird sings, for all we know, it’s pitching fossils into the air.”

Jerry Spinelli: Stargirl (2000)

A (heavily edited) excerpt from a YA novel that I’d used in a class for teaching English as a second language to high school students. Had no direct influence on my installation, but relates to it in the three ideas presented.

The tall trees do not create within them [children] a sense of security. The sound of nature does not give a sensation of safety or peace. … Nature does not seem friendly to little children. We adults must constantly assure them that there is nothing to worry about and that nothing out there is going to hurt them…

Do children who have not yet been taught to repress their feelings grasp a certain truth about the forest to which big people no longer pay attention?

… I often wonder if the reaction to children being in the forest is not somewhat akin to what the animals themselves constantly feel. The rabbit frozen in its path; the wildcat with its hunched back; even the rattlesnake poised for its strike all reek of fear. Is it just a projection of my childish emotions onto the animal kingdom or is the natural condition … fraught with a sense of being in danger?

…There is also a certain sadness. …The birds, I notice, sing in a minor key… Even the sounds of the crickets and the buzzing of the bees seem to give off an eeriness that, if I let it, creates a strange pervading pathos in my bones…

Tony Campolo: How to Rescue the Earth Without Worshipping Nature (1992)

The comment about “a minor key” is of course cultural, but the idea is clear: is there something “wrong” with nature? (This idea does not include the “song to God” that I mentioned earlier.)

…the song. Now high in the air above him, now welling up as if from glens and valleys far below, if floated through his sleep and was the first sound at every waking. It was formless as the sound of a bird, yet it was not a bird’s voice. As bird’s voice is to a flute, so this was to a cello: low and ripe and tender, full-bellied, rich and golden brown: passionate too, but not with the passions of men.

…”The singing beast?” said Ransom. “I would gladly hear more of this.”

“The beasts of that kind have no milk and always what they bring forth is suckled by the she-beast of another kind. She is great and beautiful and dumb, and till the young singing beast is weaned it is among her whelps and is subject to her. But when it is grown it becomes the most delicate and glorious of all beasts and goes from her. And she wonders at its song.”

C. S. Lewis: Perelandra (1943)

Could nature be different? On the planet Perelandra, apparently a brood parasite is not unwelcome…!

Visual Influences

All of these show a tendency towards horizontality, suggesting open spaces.

Mark Rothko – the famous rectangle paintings, viewed in groups as suggested by Rothko himself, suggest wide horizons. Same with these paintings from a different series of murals.

John Cage – I was initially surprised to learn that Cage is also known as a painter. In this piece (one of a series) he rolled stones onto the canvas and then traced around them. As always with creativity, randomness is not random.

Sam Gilliam – Though most of Gilliam’s flat-surface paintings (as opposed to those on loose draped canvas) have shapes arrayed on a vertical matrix, there is still that Cagean use of chance elements.

Wang Ximeng – oxidation over centuries has produced some startling colors; again, though, there’s that horizontal stretch.

Andy Goldsworthy – Nature becomes art. The stone wall here was made from rocks found in the area, with no mortar, so it will eventually break down, back into nature from whence it arose.

Frederick Murray – This series looks like slides from “(The) Nature (of) Sound”. Actually it consists of photographs of a lake in Australia, which is only a lake once every century or so when there happens to have been enough rain. It is only a few feet deep at most.

Musical Influences

Claudio Monteverdi: “1610” Vespers
Late Renaissance music with a twist: at the climax, where all the words of the ritual condense into “Glory to God!”, everything stands still. It is as if all of creations stops and sings quietly, contemplatively, to God.

Olivier Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time; L’Ascension; Turangalila Symphony; 20 Aspects of the Infant Jesus; From the Canyons to the Stars
The Turangalila Symphony, like its namesake one-eyed laser-slinging character in Futurama, is sometimes said to have a bad attitude. It is, after all, one of the consistently loudest pieces in the symphonic repertoire, arguably beating out “The Rite of Spring” and the Janacek Sinfonietta but with a harder edge than either. Personally I enjoy the piece very much (I like to listen to it on long car trips), but in the case of “(The) Nature (of) Sound”, it was something I chose to react against; the soundtrack to my installation is practically its antithesis. Other of Messiaen’s works relate more directly, particularly how there are large passages where all the instruments play birdsongs.

Toru Takemitsu: Corona (London Version); For Away; Waterways; November Steps; From Me Flows What You Call Time; Arc; Munari by Munari
In contrast to Messiaen’s epics, Takemitsu tended to write shorter pieces that focus on tranquility and the necessity of silence. Even the rackety early piano concerti (of which “Arc” is one) leave quietude in the wake of their tsunamis of chaos. A note about “Corona, London Verion”: this was the music that really introduced me to extended piano techniques, and it includes one that I’ve never been able to replicate.

John Cage: Sonatas and Interludes; 4’33”; The Number Pieces
“Random” elements against silence – yet there appears to be very little that sounds “random”. Chance operations, at least in the case of creativity, do not seem to produce chance results.

The (Untitled) Aleatory Ending by Jars of Clay
Stuck on the end of a classic Christian rock CD is this rehearsal of a string trio and an oboe, playing background parts for one of the songs on the CD; multi-tracked (?) and with a lot of reverb – this is essentially an aleatoric piece that proves again that “random” needn’t be. I once remixed it with one of Cage’s pieces and got something new that was also interesting.

Heart: The “Dog and Butterfly” album
An interesting direction for late 1970’s hard rock. Who ever heard of rock music that both uses a lot of dissonance and creates tranquility…!? This approach, though I generally don’t play rock, has influenced a lot of my musical thought.

Phill Niblock’s drone pieces and Neal Kosaly-Meyers’ “Gradus”
Pieces that show an infinity within a single note. In “(The) Nature (of) Sound”, single notes come in clusters that may or may not stack up to make chords.

The rest of the presentation consisted of samples of my other artwork and slides from the installation itself – this would probably not be interesting to someone who hasn’t seen it. So I’ll sign off for now.

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