Tag: authenticity

Show Up, Stay Awake, and Tell the Truth

A printed score manuscript, headphones, and a coffee mug.

I’ve long cultivated the habit of showing up at the drafting table every morning to compose. Since, I’ve reasoned, I wasn’t endowed with a particular ability to write fabulous music spontaneously, I needed to work (and work and work) on the details in order to produce something that I could be happy with.

Nothing happens if I don’t show up. No music gets written and no ideas emerge.

But nothing happens if I don’t show up. No music gets written and no ideas emerge. Our lives are composites of what we turn our concentration to, and if I’m turning my concentration to things other than composing, then those things become my focus and, in essence, my life. I think at the drafting table.

The sculptor Auguste Rodin told poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Il faut Travailler, toujours travailler [It’s necessary to work, always work]. And, when one does this, the work becomes the focus. It’s true that in the act of composing (painting, writing, etc.) friends and family may be sidelined. Often, time devoted to work is a trade-off. There is a Faustian price to be paid, but it comes more under the category of “things left undone,” rather than a Stones-like deal with the devil. Papers sit ungraded (if, like me, you’ve selected the academic route), meetings are left unattended (or at least not acted on), and class prep is circumvented.

Outside of the studio, you may show up and meet people who will change your life in positive and artistic ways. Late one Sunday night, I went to a club to hear a jazz guitarist I’d heard of around town and, there being no one else there, he talked to me at length during the break. It turns out that we shared many common interests in jazz and new music. Based on that conversation alone I ended up playing percussion with his band for the next three years—the meeting led to an economically cheerful situation and was musically enriching in the long run.

I was a guest on a radio show to promote a festival on which I was playing in Marseille, France. Seven festival performers were crowded around a mic. I ended up next to a saxophonist I’d never met before and, there on the radio, we improvised together for the first time. Afterwards he graciously invited me to his house and we ended up playing many gigs in the south of France for the next seven years. What if I’d demurred when asked to be on the radio because my French abilities were atrocious?

Other connections have led to performances, sudden improvisations, friendships, and projects. But such things don’t happen if we don’t show up. It’s hard sometimes to make an appearance. There are mornings when I don’t want to compose, evenings I don’t want to go out. At heart, I’m a hermetic sort of person who appreciates staying home to read Finnegans Wake aloud in my best Lucky Charms brogue while sipping Jameson. That desire keeps me home and makes showing up for the next morning’s writing session difficult from an excess of whiskey.

But, composing is habitual. At fifteen, I was obsessive about practicing the banjo. Did I say “practicing”? Playing is more accurate. I worked out enough technique to sit in my room and play (and play and play). One evening my father came up to call me to dinner. He stopped in the doorway and said, “You know, if you want to become a professional musician, you’re going to have to practice even when you don’t want to.” My dad perceived that I was playing and not practicing. I don’t know if he realized that he’d just told me something that would change my life, but that is advice I’ve embraced and remember even now on those mornings when I don’t feel like working.

The difficult thing about staying awake is tamping down my own inner desire to expound on my own ideas, thoughts, and problems. That approach teaches me nothing.

Showing up brackets other components. One is to stay awake to the surrounding environment, i.e., listening: listen to the music, listen to random sounds, listen to what is being said. The difficult thing about staying awake is tamping down my own inner desire to expound on my own ideas, thoughts, problems, etc., ad nauseum. That approach teaches me nothing, shuts out others, and is ultimately (sometimes suddenly) alienating. It’s better, I’ve discovered, to listen. We’re musicians; it shouldn’t be so hard. But shutting up and staying awake can be difficult. I’ve missed things in classes, seminars, workshops, and potentially interesting conversations by, most literally, sleeping, or by just not paying attention.

Another element of showing up is telling the truth. If I’m going to show up, I need to present myself as the person—the composer—I am truly. I won’t fool anyone anyway by trying to be something I’m not. One must compose what they want. After studying serial music for a number of years, I didn’t want to compose in that manner anymore. I started integrating folk melodies into my work and my music became more tonal sounding.

When I first heard John Adams’s Harmonium, I hated it. Couldn’t understand why a composer in this day and age would compose like that after all of the “ground-breaking innovations” of the past century. But I kept listening and, soon thereafter, when I was commissioned to write a short composition for orchestra, I found myself gravitating very much toward his tonal and orchestrational vocabulary.

Anytime I’ve tried to compose for an audience, I’ve failed. I’ve ended up writing music that no one, myself included, seemed terribly enthusiastic about.

My short composition for orchestra was eventually selected for a festival. At the wrap party, a selection-panel member hauled me aside and told me that he had strongly advocated for “that type of a piece” to be represented in their programming. Apparently, he had to really argue for its inclusion. One must be true to oneself in composing. Don’t worry about the audience (and especially don’t worry about what other composers think). If you’re being honest, the audience and critics will respond honestly. Anytime I’ve tried to compose for an audience, I’ve failed. I’ve ended up writing music that no one, myself included, seemed terribly enthusiastic about.

Each of these components—showing up, staying awake, and telling the truth—is hard to accomplish at one time or another. I’m my worst enemy. As already described, I have to fight myself to show up. It’s hard to pay attention, and it’s sometimes hard to be honest in what I say and to write the music that is truly self-expressive without the imagined spectre of critics looking at me askance.

But, showing up, remaining aware, and being truthful to a personal artistic vision and to others seem to be primary keys in making things happen. While it’s not certain that anything will happen by being fully present, aware, and honest, it’s definite that nothing will happen if you’re not.

Sonic Cartography II: Questions of Scale

The last blog entry looked at ways a foreigner can find the pulse of a city and help focus local listening, re-evaluation, and discussion. After creating works that grew out of single keynote sounds, new questions arose for me. How could one create a sound map of an entire province? How literal and comprehensive would that map need to be? How could recordings of diverse acoustical spaces exist in a gallery? A commission from Documenta 14 to create Matanzas Sound Map provided the opportunity to explore these questions.

One approach I experimented with in making an audio piece that surveyed an entire province was to play with the scale of perceived acoustical space. Recordings of open landscape were used to create the illusion that an indoor sound installation expanded far beyond the gallery walls. We hear the close-up drone of insect chatter, scattered aviary calls marking territory in the wetlands at dawn, and a distant railroad bell. Listening to this rural audio space creates an illusion of being transported from the urban setting of the gallery and into a vast natural habitat. Changing the scale of the acoustical space can be disorienting and heighten visitors’ attention to what they hear.

Leonard recording recording with Ambisonic microphone in the Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs)

Leonard recording recording with Ambisonic microphone in the Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs), the site where a Cuban American paramilitary group invaded the island in 1961.

Later in the Documenta installation, after establishing this sense of vast space, listeners are transported to an urban soundscape where a former stevedore sings songs of the Abakua secret society, domino players erupt in outbursts as they argue the rules of the game, and a bartender tells of his mesmerizing dream of recreating a vintage 1945 tavern centered around a 78-rpm jukebox. There are no audible vanishing points in these spaces; the scale matches that of the gallery. Before we know it, our sense of place is redefined by the smaller space where the people who we hear seem to be within reach.

A helpful strategy in weaving disparate sounds into one cohesive map was to play with connections made during audio transitions. In one instance, the chatter of the forest fades to musicians singing a song that traveled from the Cross River between Nigeria and Cameroon, through the transatlantic passage, to the ports of Havana and Matanzas. The stevedore’s connection to water is a trope in the group’s songs, and this trope informed my transitions between field recordings, chants, and songs.

Bata drummer

Bata drummer playing the lead Iya drum, in the temple of Yemaya, in former plantation of Álava in the Matanzas province of Cuba

Cross-fading between the sounds of humans, animals, insects, wind through the forest began to evoke for me the paintings of Cuban artist Manuel Mendive. Mendive’s images center on the sensual interaction of beings that are a mix of human, animal, and plant life. One figure may have the head of a bird and the body of a man. A tree might be nurturing people with its breasts and simultaneously being plucked of its fruit by a hovering bird. Without being aware of it at first, my work began to parallel Mendive’s paintings of folkloric myth and metaphor. People, animals, and landscape sounds were sonically blended and the assembly took a turn to become more of a dreamlike map of associations.

When an artist makes field recordings directed by his or her own interests and intuition, the results are shaped by those biases as much as the environment being sampled.

Finally, I had to question how to place myself in the map. When an artist makes field recordings directed by his or her own interests and intuition, the results are shaped by those biases as much as the environment being sampled. I find myself up at dawn, waiting like a hunter for that one call of an elusive owl. My breathing is unusually slow as I wait, as motionless as possible to avoid startling the wildlife. The focus of my attention shifts to the distant traffic, waiting for it to stop, so I can wade into the ocean and record the most detailed sound of bubbles fizzing as a small wave breaks. My sensation of hearing is heightened as I suppress the desire to talk to my local guides.

Additionally, in this age of anxiety around authenticity and appropriation, I questioned how to highlight my subjective experience, as “inauthentic” or out of place as it might be. I sought to express something of the wonder I felt, not just experiencing new sounds on site, but also learning the context in which those sounds exist. For example, in building the Matanzas Sound Map, I attempted to distill the feeling that arose as I walked through the former plantation of Álava, once owned by the Don Zulueta, the richest man in mid-19th-century Cuba. The sugar trade that provided sweetening and spirits for my native New England was being explained, and its songs, silences, and stories profoundly affected me as I dug deeper.

I created sounds for that internal experience in the studio. These pensive saxophone vignettes moved slowly, like clouds passing through the installation. The aforementioned transitions from rural landscape to urban voices were followed by a section comprising saxophone and electronic sounds, recorded to reflect some of the stillness and wonder I felt on site.

My multichannel sound/video installation The Other Map, excerpted for this post, demonstrates how recordings of nature, the human voice, and electronic recordings were sequenced to create a purposeful meditation on the sounds of Matanzas. Waves break gently in a rhythm suggestive of deep breathing. The voices of Andro Mella and Raphael Navaro follow, with extended silences I added between phrases to match the pacing of the waves. The excerpt ends with a saxophone and electronics vignette using the pacing of the ocean and meditative breathing. The video, shot on site, moves just as slowly and so appears to be digitally altered when in fact it, like the sound, is the result of weeks of extended observation and inquiry and noticing moments when reality appears to be an illusion.

The sonic cartography in these pieces relied on surveying a province in a purposeful way, engaging locals to help me understand the site’s history and to guide me to places where the sounds could be collected. This is much different than simply taking photos and video clips with my cellphone and pastiching a work together. Hopefully, as with the pieces discussed in the previous blog post, these sound maps will promote a focus on the specific environments and social milieu that produce these fantastic sounds.

Lago de Maya, Matanzas Province Cuba

Lago de Maya, Matanzas Province Cuba. This bridge was since washed away during Hurricane Irma

Why Even Try?

When I made the videos above to promote Sybarite5’s new album Outliers via my new side hustle Bright Shiny Things, one of my fantasies was that someone in an office somewhere saw a video, cracked up, and then said to their office mates, “Hey, come over here and see this funny-ass video from Sybarite5.” I then, in my mind’s eye, pictured the entire office crowding around one screen to watch our videos, laughing and chanting, “We love Sybarite5!” for 5-20 minutes/hours. I know this is exactly what happened, at least on a few occasions. Please don’t tell me otherwise, as my fragile ego cannot take it.

Anyway, I sincerely hope the videos contributed to our fans’ enjoyment, as well as to the album’s #1 debut on the Billboard Traditional Classical Charts.

(Now, we know there are those who will throw their arms up and scream, or quietly mutter under their breath, that we’re cheapening this classical art music by adding humor. These are probably the same people who think we need to only wear tuxedos on stage forever. These people likely want us to be something other than what we are.)

So why do it? Why do I go to the hassle of doing this for “new music?” It’s not for the money, and it’s not for the fame. No one is #newmusicfamous or #newmusicrich.

Here are the stock answers: The work is fun, and I believe in the project. I believe in the ensemble, music, and the composers. I know this music needs to get out into the world, and I want to see that happen in any way possible. So if I need to make some videos, FINE.

But I think I can dig a little deeper. The next answer is still pretty simple—we as artists continuously need to find new ways to talk about the music and the art we are creating. And I’m not afraid to make funny videos about something that people may consider “serious” art. I’m just not.

There are many choices I make because I am afraid of the judgment of others, so now what I want to understand is why I’m not afraid to do something so I can live with less fear.

Now we get to the deep water—I have to admit to myself right now that it’s not easy for me to say that I’m not afraid of something. In our modern, social media-driven world, there is certainly at the very least a perception that there is a lot to be afraid of.   I’ve recently come to realize that there are many choices I make because I am afraid of the judgment of others, so now what I want to understand is why I’m not afraid to do something so I can live with less fear. I think that making promo videos or marketing materials has something to do with the fact that I see performing on stage and interacting with our audiences online as not being so different.

If I’m doing my job well on stage and if Sybarite5 is doing its job well, we share something with the audience. And we get something back as well. There is a relationship. There is intimacy and laughter, which are related by the way.

To truly laugh with someone—not at them or near them, but with them—requires a certain amount of intimacy. Because laughter, like any emotional expression, requires the safety to express that joy. The trust that your expression won’t be dismissed. The openness and sharing of the moment. It requires an understanding of why the moment is funny, and why the shared experience is important. —ourbodiesourselves.org

I see our social media accounts, videos, albums, printed and online materials as part of a conversation happening within the context of our on-stage relationship with the audience. And so to some degree, because we are sometimes funny on stage, we can certainly make some funny videos. It’s an authentic presentation of who we are as artists and as people.

Perhaps I’m particularly mindful of this because as I began my own career, I took a few wrong turns before I found my confidence and got going down the right road for me.

When I started my professional life in music, there was no path forward to have a career as a double bassist in chamber music. It simply didn’t exist. Most of my training was focused on getting a job in an orchestra, which I eventually did. And, while performing orchestra masterworks is something that gives me great pleasure and satisfaction, I knew very early on after getting an orchestra job that I would never have a say in the artistic production in a way that was deeply meaningful to me. So a search began. The search was within myself, and outside myself. I asked lots of questions. Is this an expansion of my education? A means to an end? Do I have already the answer? Is there an answer? I didn’t know. I just knew I needed to search. This wasn’t going to be easy, simple, or quick, and I knew it. Nevertheless I went there. I played for a lot more people and sought out new teachers. I eventually came up with musical and artistic growth as a path. I founded Sybarite5 and soon that became a vehicle for my artistic and musical growth in a more profound way than the orchestra.

Discovering this path took some time. I say to a lot of friends that I probably spent about five years scared shitless to even mention out loud that I wanted to have a career in chamber music to most of my teachers. They’d laugh out loud, right? I thought these people were orchestral gods of bass, and I think they would have seen chamber work as a total cop out to getting a “real job” in an orchestra. And, if I’m being honest with myself, which I am, those choices were being made because I was afraid of the judgment of others. This was often counterproductive to my artistic and musical growth. I’m mentioning this again now because if I had known what I know now then, just maybe I could have made my decisions a little quicker or with more ease, and it’s my hope that maybe some youngster will read this and they can skip the five-year indecisive torment plan.

It’s my hope that maybe some youngster will read this and they can skip the five-year indecisive torment plan.

Actually, it probably took me eight years to really make a decision to put the majority of my energy into a career in chamber music (and therefore not into orchestra auditions). Oddly enough, the single moment that I can say I chose chamber music was when the New York Philharmonic called me to play as a substitute and I said nope, I had to study chamber music in Aspen. I wasn’t afraid, and I was too naïve to know that they’d never call me again. But in hindsight, I made the correct, if subconscious, choice by going with the thing that fed my artistic inner self. I took a path that had more potential for growth.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about fear and judgment, and how those two things influence the majority of the decisions I make. But there is one place that they don’t get a say, and that’s when I’m on stage performing new music. Why is that?

I guess I’ve got a week to figure it out and let you know.

An Expanding Paradigm

steel drums

Photo by Sasithon Pooviriyakul (2010)

When So Percussion started out, we had three prohibitions:  no improvisation, no playing our own music, and no hand drums. Initially, the impetus for these boundaries was an attempt to define ourselves as a hardcore new music group made up of virtuosi.  We’ve since violated all of those rules in spades, although we work hard to perpetuate that original mission.

It wasn’t that we didn’t respect these categories. Actually, we established the hand drum rule specifically because we had so much respect for expert players of congas, tabla, and djembe. We felt that there would be no reason for anybody to come out to hear us pretend to play instruments that other performers had so thoroughly mastered.

The restrictions on composing and improvising had a similar genesis: other musicians spent many years on these crafts, just as we hunkered down honing our chamber music skills. We had an urgent need and desire to be among the best at what we did.  I think these early rules were actually helpful, because we needed a lot of time to devote to chamber music with scores.  We were trying to build a new vocabulary of interaction, a way of listening and rehearsing that took years to dial in.

Eventually, as school days morphed into the beginnings of a professional career, these restrictions made less and less sense.  The hand drum rule fell away quickly, and it is this peculiar prohibition that sparked my thoughts for this article. Almost every instrument we play as percussionists is borrowed from another culture, so one has to either find a way forward in playing them that feels good, or else give up completely.  We came to believe that it’s largely a matter of taste, that the context in which they appear is paramount.

I asked my colleague Josh Quillen, who studied steel drums both in Trinidad and in the United States, how he grapples with including those instruments in So Percussion’s music. His reply:

I rarely reference my cultural knowledge of Trinidad when playing steel drums within So Percussion. It actually helps me to avoid any baggage in that context (and mainly assumptions put on the instrument by others) and to help push me past what I know about the instrument.  Instead, I rely solely on what I learned about how to play the instrument.
With that said, if you’re going to use the instruments in a traditional manner, I say go for it, but that’s where you need to have some background in it in order to do so with any sort of credibility.  I feel good about teaching a steel band and recording traditional calypsos because I have a background in it, and I still work closely with people who are steeped in the culture, and are still teaching me about the instrument and its background.

Here’s a quick sample of the second movement of Steve Mackey’s It Is Time, written for So Percussion in 2009.  Steve and Josh worked hard together to capture the essence of the steel drums, while never letting the music descend into cultural parody.

As Josh mentions, another way to reconcile incorporating an instrument into your music is to find a way to use its sound and quality as an abstract resource, stripping it of most stylistic references.  Many European modernists such as Xenakis discovered new qualities in borrowed instruments, such as the thumping yet warm sonorities of congas and bongos played with sticks in the “Peaux” movement of his massive sextet Pleiades.  In this case, the instruments are incorporated with many other kinds of drums into a new composite instrument, and the manner in which they are played bears little resemblance to their original context.
I feel that as long as we are not pretending to play the specific kind of music that those hand drums were originally used in, or casually mimicking that music, there is nothing wrong with incorporating the sounds of the instruments into the already messy and diverse palate of the percussion ensemble.

As Josh also outlines, one of the most effective ways to feel at ease about knowing how to include an instrument or a tradition into your music is to study it!  If you’ve ever spent time getting your butt kicked by a Balinese Gamelan master who is requiring you to memorize extremely long melodies by ear, or exposing yourself to the fathomless depths of complexity embodied in the talas of Hindustani music, or playing with 120 other steel drummers at Panorama in Trinidad, it is nearly impossible for you to condescend to that music, or to incorporate it carelessly into your own music.

The issue of cross-cultural dialogue isn’t only relevant to crossing geographical boundaries.  Sometimes even collaborating within sub-cultures has its own negotiations, where effort is required to find common ground and articulate mutual expectations.
In 2005, we struck up a relationship with the duo Matmos, who have been steady collaborators ever since.  In the broader sense of culture, we had a lot in common: we spoke the same language, had all grown up in and been educated in the same country, etc.  We diverged in one key area, which was that Drew and Martin of Matmos had not had any formal training in classical music.
But their music was fascinating!  They bowed rat cages, made tracks out of liposuction sounds, and somehow blended the curiosity of musique concrète (which they are extremely aware of) with a smile-inducing and infectious feel for making great beats.  We loved the conceptuality and natural musicianship of their music, which we first got to know through their work on Bjork’s Vespertine album.

Their musical culture has its own rules and expectations, some of which they purposely break.  I quickly realized that I knew very little about that culture, just as they didn’t know much about the endless Beethoven and Monteverdi that I was listening to in order to prepare for my doctoral exams at Yale.

I distinctly remember talking to Martin about some of their favorite music, as I was genuinely curious.  He rattled off so many names I had never heard of that I just asked him to boil it down to the Matmos influence essentials, the first five things I should listen to.

He said, “You mean, like Kraftwerk?”
I said, “Who is Kraftwerk?”

He looked at me like I had just landed on planet Earth.  He might as well have said to me, “Who is Mozart?”
Martin and Drew’s instrument layout in performance reads like a time capsule of the past 30 years of electronic music.  They hang on to reliable instruments that they love, refusing to clean the slate every time a new technological update is available.  Over years of conversation and experimentation with them, we have started to incorporate some of those instruments in our music as well.  Without their influence and knowledge, I’m not sure we would have felt comfortable with the baggage of a Korg or V-Synth suddenly appearing in our percussion ensemble.

There is an organic process in bringing cultural perspective to what you do.  No rule or blanket theory is going to address everything that’s possible:  we have too many interweaving contexts to sort out a unified approach.    As a young group, So Percussion sought a concrete definition of what made us a new music group, and an answer to why that category mattered. It seemed to us that jumping into all of these other ponds would be confusing or messy.  In truth, it probably has been.  And it has not always been successful!

But it has been worth it, at least to us. Here’s a performance of Water, a piece that we wrote together with Matmos.  It incorporates both Matmos’ electronic elements and Josh’s steel drum playing.

Faithfully Re-presenting the Outside World

“It was then I first realised the difference between a painting and out of doors. I realised that a painting is always a flat surface and out of doors never is, and that out of doors is made up of air and a painting has no air, the air is replaced by a flat surface, and anything in a painting that imitates air is illustration and not art.”

—Gertrude Stein, Paris France

One seemingly unresolved issue in the realm of field recordings is the tension between authenticity and abstraction. One can view an artist’s work with “the field” as existing somewhere between these two different, though not mutually exclusive, concerns. On the one hand, some artists strongly adhere to maintaining the perceptible accuracy/authenticity of their location, whereas others simply take elements from it as necessary, unconcerned with the legibility of the source.
Recording in a field
Let’s imagine a composer who is enamored with the sound of the Swiss Alps and decides to make a field recording there. This composer wants to portray the most accurate, pristine document of the aural landscape as possible. Such a composer is motivated by authenticity, likely hoping to make the listener feel like he/she is actually there, or perhaps hoping to entice the listener to travel to the location. Generally this privilege of locational authenticity is assumed to be the driving force behind field recording work.

On the other end of the spectrum, we can imagine a composer who is interested in using something from the aural landscape, perhaps the canned music played by an ice cream truck as it travels through his/her neighborhood, simply as one amongst many other sounds. In this mode of working, one does not particularly care whether or not the recording’s location (or source) is intelligible. This locationally independent, or more abstract, mode of working is assumed to belong to the realm of electronic music, and furthermore assumed to be different than field recording.
Brandon LaBelle outlines the concern regarding authenticity in field recording work, specifically regarding the R. Murray Schafer founded World Soundscape Project, as follows:

The intention behind the WSP was based on capturing environmental sound in all its breadth and diversity across the globe, preserving important “soundmarks” and gaining insight into people’s understanding and awareness of acoustic environments…To cast a net of microphones across the globe sets our ears on finding the truth of sound, so as to arrive finally at the original soundscape.

Every time I read this quote, though, I have this nagging series of questions in the back of my head: how can one realistically expect to arrive at “the original soundscape”? Isn’t the motivation to record some soundscape fundamentally based on one’s personal interpretation and, therefore, an abstraction to begin with? Could one ever say that my experience of the sound of the Swiss Alps is the same as anyone else’s?

Herein lies the issue with this supposed opposition between authenticity and abstraction: as individual listeners, we each have a different experience of the outside world. There is no perceivable “ursound” (to use LaBelle’s terminology), no fundamental source of the aural landscape in the same sense that there is no perceivably definitive color “blue.” Similarly, the tools (or technology) that one uses to capture parts (or all) of the soundscape have the ability to shape (or abstract) the document of the field further.

Michael Pisaro’s writing on standing issues in field recording work hints at some of the inherent problems in attempting to document the totality of the acoustic environment:

A recording is a reduction. The immersive sensual experience of an environment will in the end be represented purely in terms of sound. It is possible that a sound recording device will in some cases hear more than we do, but it will obviously never capture everything that is sounding. It will be limited in time and in the perceptible borders of the soundscape.

Recording abstracts the environment. Microphones are designed to accept certain frequencies, reject others, as well as accept/reject sounds from certain angles of incidence. Moreover, the impulse to make a recording in a particular place, at a particular time, using a particular set of equipment, abstracts/limits the amount of the field to be recorded.

I am uninterested in starting a kind of “punk or not punk” debate here because, frankly, it is a waste of time (“[name of recording] is a REAL field recording because of [insert rationale regarding perceptible authenticity here]”). What is interesting, however,, is that there are many works that simultaneously present a clear picture of the location and employ extreme abstractions via compositional or conceptual moves. Michael Pisaro’s Transparent City and Toshiya Tsunoda’s O Kokos Tis Anixis (Grains of Spring) seem to typify this friction, and a more detailed analysis of these works will unearth what is unique about attempting to balance both extremes.

Michael Pisaro’s Transparent City

The complete Transparent City project spans four CDs (two double-discs) on the German-based experimental music record label Editions Wandelweiser. Volumes 1 and 2 feature recordings made throughout Los Angeles between December 2004 and August 2006, while Volumes 3 and 4 span October 2006 to February 2007. The liner notes explain:

Each recording is an unedited ten-minute take from a single location. Sine tones and mixing completed in Michael Pisaro’s home studio in Santa Clarita, California. Each ten-minute piece is followed by two minutes of silence.

In short, all four volumes of Transparent City feature three elements: recordings of urban environments in Los Angeles, sine tones, and silence.

Michael Pisaro

Michael Pisaro

The environment presented across these four discs is relatively similar sounding, filled with general city ambience and car sounds. However, Transparent City also features recurring instances of a compositional move that is simply magical: a particular sound will naturally appear/disappear out of the stereo field to reveal a soft, tuned sine tone as accompaniment. In one track, a high tone subtly fades in only to be joined by the sound of a passing car. The car and tone blend seamlessly for just a moment before the car disappears from the landscape. Sometimes the sine tone remains, sometimes it disappears with its environmental collaborator. At another point, a tone becomes a dyad when another one appears, offering a kind of chordal drone under chirping birds and air. When chords are present, the listener realizes that all coincidences of sounds in the environment can be heard as chords, that melodies are unearthed with a subtle shift of perspective across numerous sources.
Pisaro’s unedited field recordings authentically present the aural location but become something entirely other when combined with tuned sine tones. One could think of Transparent City as a kind of training regimen for reinterpreting the soundscape of Los Angeles. In a way, it is a digital proof of concept of Cage’s 4’33”: Pisaro adds simple, musical accompaniment to urban Los Angeles to assert the musical appreciation of the aural landscape. One is also reminded of Joseph Fourier’s theory that any complex sound can be divided into a collection of sine tones. Transparent City proves the utility of this theory, giving the listener countless examples of sine tones disappearing within environmental sounds.

The other significant move in Transparent City is the recurring two minutes of silence following each track. Transparent City retrains the listener’s interpretation of an aural landscape, and then confronts the listener with his current landscape, enticing him to imagine Pisaro’s sine tones flowing in and out of his surroundings. This recurring silence becomes more fascinating as one progresses through all four discs. The final appearance of one’s own landscape at the end of the collection, through ears that have been reoriented to atomize their surroundings, is shocking.

This idea that the aural landscape is endlessly divisible, and endlessly musical, is not a new one, but the sheer viscerality of its presentation, and augmentation, in Pisaro’s hands is truly unique. This extreme re-framing of the field would not happen without the abstracted sine tones or the raw, unedited recordings of Los Angeles working in tandem. Taken together, then, Transparent City is a work which depends on both aural authenticity as well as conceptual or compositional abstraction.

Toshiya Tsunoda’s O Kokos Tis Anixis (Grains of Spring)

Toshiya Tsunoda’s work represents a truly unique mixture of extreme procedural discipline and vivid recordings of the outside world. His work runs the gamut from recordings made via a microphone inside a bent pipe to the sound of a subject’s biological functions (recorded via stethoscopes) while he sits outside listening to his surroundings. O Kokos Tis Anixis (Grains of Spring), recently released on his own imprint, edition.t, is another fascinating example of pushing a procedural operation to an extreme on field recorded source material.

Toshiya Tsunoda

Toshiya Tsunoda

Recorded on the Miura Peninsula (in Kanagawa, Japan) during the springtime, Tsunoda’s work here spreads across two CDs with a simple, recurring compositional device: randomly he loops a tiny fragment of sound for various durations. The first time this happens, it sounds almost like a CD skipping: lush jungle sounds are suddenly interrupted by a few seconds of a harsh, repeating, rhythmic glitch. Though a seemingly simple gesture, Tsunoda plays freely with the length of the loop, as well as how long it repeats and the time between instances of looping.

Throughout both discs, loops start and end without warning, and the lack of consistency across each instance of looping is jarring: a bird singing is suddenly interrupted by some tiny fragment of the background clicking rhythmically for several seconds. Sometimes the loop is long enough to sound like it actually belongs to the environment preceding it, sometimes it is so short it sounds like a drill. The effect is like freezing a tiny atom of time, or like viewing cellular behavior under a microscope.
From Tsunoda’s liner notes:

I decided to present the recorded materials as a composition with the least amount of modification, mainly by replacing one unit with another. This is one of my trials to present a “subject” as a piece of work—which can be called field recordings—that contains the accidentalness. We cannot manipulate the accidentalness. The only way for us to relate to the events is to closely observe what is happening there.

I love this quote because it typifies the give and take between intentionality and chance in field recording work. The only way that we can observe “accidentalness” or chance (or perhaps nature?) is to put the natural world under an extreme microscope. When doing so, we see that our normal fidelity when observing the world glosses over a tremendous amount of activity. Similarly, Tsunoda hints at the play between intentionally choosing a particular location, with a particular set of sounds, to record, but hoping to be truly surprised by what can be found there.

The title of each track allows the listener to zoom in even further on the sounds. Here Tsunoda is even more concerned with authenticity of source than is typical for an artist working in this domain. Tsunoda gives the listener a location (the Miura Peninsula), and then a subset of that location (“the sounds of ashes bursting in the fire built by fisherman”), and then repeatedly pushes the listener deeper and deeper into the sound. At a certain resolution, one is confronted with the grain of the environment (hence the title “Grains of Spring”), the endlessly divisible atoms that make up the outside world. Tsunoda loops the sound to allow one’s ears to adjust to the fidelity of the alien sound world therein, only to suddenly snap back to the normal fidelity of the aural landscape.

Similar to the Pisaro, Tsunoda’s work fundamentally changes our perception of the outside world. If the soundscape is as unstable, depending on our perspective, as it is presented throughout O Kokos Tis Anixis, at what point can we say that we have actually heard it? Does this atomization, this fragmentation, get us closer to understanding the fundamental nature of sound, or does it simply prove that a wealth of activity is occurring on endlessly deeper levels? The disorienting nature of listening to this seemingly random interchange between high alteration of a location, which is otherwise presented to us “as is,” is simply incredible.

Both of these works typify a fascinating interaction between conceptual constraints, or abstractions, and accurate portrayals of an environment. It is clear that a similar effect would not have been possible by simply recording the urban sound of Los Angeles or the natural sounds in the Miura Peninsula. Similarly, though, a sample-based electronic music piece would not have tied these sounds to their origin. It is truly the combination of both, seemingly opposed, motivations that yields a listening experience rarely encountered. They prove that a field recording does not have to merely document some outside landscape, and that one can still document the outside world faithfully while pushing further via extreme compositional procedures. The friction between holding authenticity and abstraction at the same level yields a truly productive experience. We will never hear the world the same after work like this.

Works Cited
Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art, Brandon LaBelle. 2007.
“Ten framing considerations of the field,” Michael Pisaro. 2010.
Transparent Cities (Volumes 1-4), Michael Pisaro. Editions Wandelweiser.
O Kokos Tis Anixis (Grains of Spring), Toshiya Tsunoda. edition.t.

Classical Pantomime

Following up on last week, I want to talk a little bit more about musical authenticity and how notions of what’s authentic in music have changed in recent years. For starters, let’s look at this video of an “acoustic” performance by Marina and the Diamonds, and think about what the word “acoustic” means in this context:

The video begins with the keyboardist playing a digital autoharp, before switching to a digital piano. The guitarist faithfully strums his acoustic guitar through most of the song, but it’s often so low in the mix as to be nearly inaudible. While the overall scene duplicates the setup of a band playing together in a room, there’s little to no room sound; the reverb on the singer’s voice is artificial. And on the chorus there’s a mysterious, invisible shaker played by an offscreen ghost.

In other words, there’s not much that’s acoustic (i.e. non-electronic) about how the sound was produced in this video. Instead, the term is used as a kind of skeuomorphic analogy for sounds that have an acoustic origin. I’m not pointing this out to deride or condemn the methods here. In fact, I think it’s interesting how there’s no attempt to disguise the fact that the scenario is in some way contrived. (Also, it sounds great.) This represents a significant change from a time when acoustic music was largely seen as real and genuine, and electronic music was often felt to be trickery and artifice.

This transition isn’t limited to the pop music world either. At Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, Anthony McGill, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, and Gabriela Montero pantomimed a performance of John Williams’ “Air and Simple Gifts.” This was regarded as a purely practical decision—the weather was too cold and the risk of broken strings was too great. Caroline Florman, a spokesperson for the event, said that “the fact they were forced to perform to tape because of the weather did not seem relevant.” There are plenty of other notable examples too, like Luciano Pavarotti lip synching at the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics. (The Olympics, in general, seems like an epicenter for this kind of thing.) The number of people who are bothered by this behavior seems to dwindle further and further.

Contrast this to the 1983 premiere of Frank Zappa’s “While You Were Art” by the California EAR Unit, when the ensemble, led by percussionist Art Jarvinen, pretended to perform while a cassette of synthesized instruments played back through loudspeakers. This caused a major scandal in the new music scene at the time, in part because no one in the audience was aware of the deception. In Zappa’s mind, this confirmed the phoniness of the classical music establishment, but it’s hard to imagine anyone making that point with this kind of performance now. (It’s also hard to imagine everyone being fooled by it.)
It’s difficult, maybe impossible, to pinpoint when exactly this attitude changed. But now we’re seeing an increase in canny, self-aware pantomime, like William Brittelle’s manic stage performances. Here the gap between sound and performance becomes a realm of possibility. Composers and performers are just beginning to explore this kind of territory, and it’ll be interesting to see where it leads.