James Tenney: Composition, Communication, Creativity
Composition for me is mostly motivated by curiosity. First of all, an interest in answering the question: what will it sound like if I do such and such? But then, also, a desire to hear it. It's a desire for a certain kind of experience, a certain kind of sensory experience, which does not involve communication. Now, you speak of just about anything involving the senses as a communication process in an abstract way, but when I say communication, I mean something involving intention. There is an intention on the part of the sender to produce a signal which means something specific to the receiver, and the receiver is made to understand something through the receipt of the signal.
The only way in which that is relevant to my work is to say that what I want to be understood is just the message itself, the signal itself. It's not about something else. It's simply the basis for an experience. And I make music with the awareness that other people are going to hear it; so in a certain sense, I make it for other people to hear, but primarily because I want to hear it. Although I could imagine being quite delighted to sit in a studio and produce music that interested me, I'm a social being too, so it's part of my way of being in the world.
I think we're all channels, in a certain sense, for a creative process which already exists in the universe. There is what could be called a creative process involved, which historically has led from, you know, the world of elementary particles to atoms, to complex molecules, to complex organic molecules, to simple living cells. Biological evolution is a manifestation of a creative process which is inherent in matter, or inherent in the material world.
I am not thinking of a separate creative agency that puts these together. There must be a tendency in this direction-- which is, of course, countered by the opposite tendency of entropy-- but it exists, evidently. What you want to call it, and how inherent you wish to believe it is in just plain old matter and energy-- that's where the questions arise.
We're all vehicles for creative intelligence. But it's not something that comes through us from outside of the material world; it's something that's inherent in the material world itself, I think.
The promiscuous openness of the ear, a hole that takes all comers, means that we as living systems are open to and invaded by the world. Sound queers the self/world boundary, all day, every day. It blurs the edges of any self that the subject-machine cares to hail; even in the midst of 'Hey you, here's your House music,' there are other noises afoot, other sounds playing, other ways to become something more or less than one more obedient minority subject.
Sound-- not music but sound-- can let us hear what is not yet locatable on the available maps of identity. Hearing the queerness of sound might help us echolocate the edges of subjection and encounter everything that stands outside the hailing process.
Religion, whatever it is, is a man's total reaction upon life, so why not say that any total reaction upon life is a religion? Total reactions are different from casual reactions, and total attitudes are different from casual attitudes. To get at them you must go behind the foreground of existence and reach down to that curious sense of the whole residual cosmos as an everlasting presence, intimate or alien, terrible or amusing, lovable or odious, which in some degree every one possesses.
-- William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
Notes on Two for Umbral
May 9, 2014
I performed a third site-specific netmusic piece this past Tuesday night at the cafe Yume in Mexico City's Colonia Escandon. The situation was considerably different from previous performances: the venue was an indoor space, more of a small concert setting than I've ever played previously; and it was the closing act of the three-night series Umbral, which featured ten sets of musicians from Europe and North America. This felt like a departure from my first performance in DF, a one-night event where I performed on the rooftop after two very different indoor sets by Mexico City natives.
The main challenge this presented to me was tuning to this space-- both because there was little time to listen and test my work without the regular activities of the cafe (music, conversation, daytime noise from the open-air doorway), and because ears and bodies would be a bit fatigued after two sets (or nine, counting the entire series) at midnight on a Tuesday. Since my process typically involves highlighting certain acoustic elements in the performance site, isolating the elements on a busy cafe Monday morning that would be present on Tuesday night concert was somewhat tricky.
But certain elements were solid enough to work from, and I started with a few field recordings in the space. From these I worked out a set of pitches that would harmonize-- in a both literal and abstract senses-- with the ambience. Again, after hours of listening and tuning, I deferred my urge to devise a structure immediately. Instead I tested out various playing positions around the cafe, combinations of tones, and sequences of recorded material. Acoustically notable were the space's high ceilings that trapped certain high tones, drones of multiple refrigerators, and the periodic crunch of ice dropping in the ice machine. Plus the pleasant taps, hums and hisses of various espresso drinks being made.
Eventually the structure materialized into two main parts separated by a long pause. The first part begins with the only field recording from inside the space, a harmonic and noisy drone from the bathroom vent. The recording is unprocessed with the exception of volume adjustments and conversion to decent quality MP3/Ogg files. Another file begins at a variable time interval as this first one fades out-- it is the same recording, but converted to a low quality (48 kbps) MP3 file. Since the MP3 algorithm was designed to render file compression noise less audible-- hiding it under the recording's already predominant frequencies, I'm interested in highlighting and listening to this "less audible" noise. On a cultural level, I also find it necessary to attend to the processes that transform routine experiences, especially those that act in a subliminal way; foregrounding MP3 conversion noise is one straightforward way to accomplish this.
Somewhere in the middle of the this low-quality MP3 recording a set of six tones begin to repeat themselves at variable volumes and intervals of time between repetitions. After a few minutes, the long pause. Then, a different set of six tones, also tuned to aspects of the performance space. The low-quality MP3 recording fades in again, but to my ears sounds different as it emerges for the second time-- without the prelude of the normal-quality version of itself and with a different set of tones sounding. The computer sound ends when this low-quality MP3 recording fades out. At this point the afterimage of digital sound and the drone of the performance space continue to interact. The performance ends when I walk over to the laptop (which has been perched on a metallic countertop next to the espresso machine) and close it.
Thanks to Rolando Hernandez and Gudinni Cortina for producing an excellent series (and asking me to play) and to Silvia and Yume staff for enduring test tones in all corners of the space.
It Is What It Is
April 24, 2014
The main idea in this short essay by Budhaditya Chattopadhyay is an argument against sound art curators privileging "sound objects" in exhibitions and in favor of exploring "the cognitive-associative thought processes triggered by sound, drawing lines between the source of sound and the listener’s mind that apprehends it." In other words, in my interpretation: presenting sounds to stand on their own so they are unencumbered by visual or material referents. Further:
"I agree with sound-theorists that sound is less closely tied to the Kantian category of substance than vision, and therefore any attempt to frame sound within an artistic object or artifact poses problems of a philosophical nature."
Who says this and on what basis? I read this argument as a justification for sonic-exceptionalism without much depth. It is only since the electronic age that sound might have appeared removed from substance-- from instruments, voices, objects, nature. But in fact, it's just gained a layer of mediation (physically, transduction) and it's still, even at its most abstract, dependent on the material hardware of its transmission: vibrating media, amplification, speakers, room acoustics, bodies, etc.
Sound is not just waves. It has become easy to look at waveforms on a computer or oscillator and say "that's sound," but it isn't-- it's a graphical representation. Sound originates from one vibrating medium and resonates through others. To deny sound's involvement in the material world is paradoxically quite materialistic: treating sound as a pure, sensuous, autonomous phenomenon removes it from the real and material particulars of its existence. Sound as such is thus easier to objectify, commodify and disconnect from the conceptual baggage, both positive and negative, of its production and transmission. Smooth jazz is a favorite example of a music that began as a radical political and aesthetic expression of the Black American experience (early jazz) and, through abstraction and clever production over several decades, led to an innocuous surrogate for itself that helps us shop easier and relax in the dentist's waiting room. This is what happens when we detach sound from its history and origins. On an elemental level, perhaps we can say that this A-flat or that white noise is semantically abstract in itself, but the processes that enabled you to hear it are not.
I can get carried away on this topic. The further we abstract things from their origins, the easier they are to manipulate in nefarious ways. Think about the abstraction of money from labor, electricity from fossil fuel extraction, meat from living animals... and the importance of understanding things on ecological rather than isolated terms is apparent. Sound is no different. Chattopadhyay even compares the abstract flow of sound to that of "big data," suggesting that our exposure to the latter would make the former seem "less esoteric" in contemporary times. We all have good reason to feel hesitant to surrender to the abstract flow of big data; it makes sense to remain aware of how things are connected. Why is sound any different?
Chattopadhyay suggests that curators need to approach sound-oriented work with a level of sensitivity that comes from experienced listening. And that this entails selecting work based on its merit and appropriateness, not on whether it leans "on a visual 'prop' to anchor its sonic experience." This, we both agree, is responsible curating. However, if the presentation format or physical particulars of audio art are to blame for limiting the experience of sound in an exhibition, the problem is not the art's objecthood, but more likely insensitive curating.
It seems like a concept of "auto-curating" would entail giving the work enough space and time for an audience to experience its full perceptual and conceptual range. If the work is a recording limited physically to its digital encoding or recording medium, it might not belong in an exhibition. If it requires a special hardware installation, then the physicality of the installation is undeniably part of the work. Rather than excluding materiality from the curating and consequently the making of audio art, it's worth looking deeper into why these aspects of the work seem at odds.
I should acknowledge that there is plenty of compelling 'sound art'(?) whose only physical anchors are software, hardware and playback platforms. And I do get the sense that this is the type of work that Chattopadhyay's essay is treating. An important distinction should be made, and it was this omission that got me going writing this response in the first place: Some sound work does demand a neutral listening space free of visual distractions, but this is a necessity for a particular and relatively narrow genre within a larger group of artists who make so-called sound art. I'd like to believe that these artists wisely recognize this "sound only" approach as an historical convention of the genre and wilfully work within it-- not through a philosophical belief in sound's autonomy from the rest of the world.
Concepts of listening and sound-oriented curating can be inclusive-- of sound's "cochlear" or "associative" phenomena and its material and conceptual relationships.
It Is What It Is
April 17, 2014
Who can be interested purely in sound, however high its 'fidelity'? Improvisation is a language spontaneously developed amongst the players and between players and listeners. Who can say in what consists the mode of operation of this language? Is it likely that it is reducible to electrical impulses on tape and the oscillation of a loudspeaker membrane? On this reactionary note, I abandon the topic.
News has to travel somehow and tape is probably in the last analysis just as adequate a vehicle as hearsay, and certainly just as inaccurate.
Integrity: What we do in the actual event is important - not only what we have in mind. Often what we do is what tells us what we have in mind.
The difference between making the sound and being the sound. The professional musician makes the sounds (in full knowledge of them as they are external to him); AMMis their sounds (as ignorant of them as one is about one's own nature).
What you can look at and see are forms and colors; what you can listen to and hear are names and sounds. What a pity! - that the men of the world should suppose that form and color, name and sound are sufficient to convey the truth of a thing. It is because in the end they are not sufficient to convey truth that "those who know do not speak, those who speak do not know." But how can the world understand this!
Zhuangzi (Chuang-Tzu), Section 13, Trans. B Watson
It Is What It Is
January 16, 2014
Jennifer Gans is a clinical psychologist and researcher who specializes in this kind of therapy for tinnitus. She calls it mindfulness. Sixteen years ago, Gans was hit by a truck and sent into a five-day coma. That accident, and the painful recovery that followed, made her especially attuned to managing pain. She has since developed a mindfulness program for tinnitus, modeled after techniques used for chronic pain. Key to the program is accepting the tinnitus, she said. Focusing on it, rather than pushing it away and turning inward to harness existing powers of healing.
"There's a Buddhist saying: pain in life is inevitable, but suffering is optional," she said. "I'm working with the people on their suffering about their tinnitus, helping them to change their relationship to the tinnitus or whatever pain in life comes their way."
She calls it "moving into" the tinnitus, and compares it to driving on ice.
"If you turn away from the skid as we're not supposed to, the car spins out of control," she explains. "But if you move into the skid, there's this moment of skidding with it where all of a sudden, you reestablish balance, eventually. And so that is essentially what I see as what's helpful for tinnitus -- it's not pulling away from it."
Netmusic Performances, Post-Performance
December 28, 2013
In recent months I began to present my netmusic pieces as live performances. As I wrote on specific pieces below (Chord 2013, Agujero), the composition process begins with several days of tuning to the performance spaces. For the concert I then present the finished composition in that space, performed by a web browser on a laptop. At this time the relationship between the composition and the surrounding space is clear: the composition was created for, tuned to, and in some cases built from found sounds in this place. Though I've written a fair amount on these pieces' lives during the performance, I haven't gotten into what happens afterwards.
The same day these pieces are performed, they're posted online here at topiel.info, joining the previous set of netmusic works that exist online only, not as IRL performances. Through this project one area that has interested me is the way they transform, confuse, and merge space. As space is a necessity of sound's existence, all sounds in these netmusic pieces are related to the spaces of their origins. Whether these sounds are field recordings (as in Sometimes) or tiny electronic signals transduced to acoustic ones (as in Nibbles), the original spaces are encapsulated in the sound material of each composition. Then several translations occur: I digitize them, convert them to MP3 and Ogg files, and upload these to a server whose exact physical location is unknown to me. Then when someone accesses them in, say, a motel room in Pensacola, their browser reads the files in a particular way, sends them to a sound card that converts them back into electrical signals for the speakers to transduce again into acoustic waves, then this sound resonates in the motel room, between and in the objects and bodies that are there to listen. Though a number of parameters in these compositions are determined, this process that happens during each instance of playback is never exactly the same because of the inherent variability in this transmission.
An interesting consequence of this series of transformations is that the work becomes an artifact of its spaces and processing. This is something that I find compelling about the internet in general-- that despite its seeming global uniformity, there are still perceptible traces of the local, the original physical origins and pathways that signals traverse.
What does it mean when a geographically site-specific composition becomes a virtual site-specific composition? In this case the original sonics of these works are tailored to their environment with the knowledge that they will be performed there. But then these specific characteristics are exported to very different environments. This is one way of articulating a very exact location in a different one, a grafting of one sonic environment's trace onto another space. Robert Smithson's Nonsites come to mind as similar in their abstract representation or mapping of places. It isn't really a concern whether this space-on-space phenomenon sounds good in a conventional musical sense (what criteria of musical taste should apply here anyway?). Rather, I find the value in experiencing these traces of a highway overpass in Queens while I listen from a laptop in a Pensacola motel room. This potential of grafting one site's acoustic character onto an entirely different one demonstrates in a very corporeal way the everyday geographical displacements that the internet constantly enacts. To listen to this process is to become sensitive to its resonances with our places, routines, bodies, and work.
Paralell to the online displacement of space is the displacement of time. Each of these pieces was performed for and at a specific time. Since I uploaded them online, they can now be played whenever they're accessed. Each playback session has a different duration within a predetermined range (for example Agujero is always between 18:00 and 30:20 in total duration, with subsections of varying durations as well), so each playback constitutes a unique performance of its own. This is unlike playing a recording as recordings are always the same each time they're played. There is an ambiguous relationship between the original 'live' performance and all subsequent playback sessions in different times and places. Though the live performance was the first, we can't say it's original or any truer than the other plays. It's the first, but it's also just one of many which are all generated from the same files and code. There is no browser or hardware or space that performs the piece "better" and no playback is a ever a reproduction of any other. Is this the beginning of generative documentation? That's one way to imagine it, although how can documentation be equally primary as the event that it documents? Perhaps a better way to understand it is as an obsolescence of documentation. Or maybe the entire work is documentation of an elusive or theoretical original.
In the same way the performances aim to highlight existing elements in acoustic space, the online dimension of these pieces do the same with virtual space. Sound catalyzes a process of listening to the environment. I consider this work less an intervention than a tuning and sympathetic resonance with what's already going on. As always, it is what it is.
It Is What It Is
December 18, 2013
A blanket of snow may be used like paper or canvas on which marks and traces can be made. Snow also lends itself as inexpensive, although ephemeral, construction material for shape-oriented sculpture. Neither approach goes essentially beyond what is traditionally conceived of as painting or sculpture.
Another attitude, however, would be to consider snow as part of a large meteorological system determined by humidity, temperature, air pressure, velocity, and direction of winds as well as topographical characteristics of the earth. All of these factors are interrelated and affect each other. Taking such an attitude would lead to working strategies that could expose the functioning and the consequences of these interdependent processes.
For a formalist the resulting situations might appear as just another black-and-white drawing or three-dimensional composition to be judged according to standard rules of formal accomplishment. However, formal criteria bypass the systems concept and are therefore irrelevant.
New York City, February, 1969
It Is What It Is, Inverse Perspective
December 8, 2013
"Only from the perspective of the represented can surrounding space be understood. Everything is oriented to it. That which is represented is no longer an observable object, but rather the sole mediator of the entirety of the place. I believe one could say that in an inverse perspectival music this "represented" leads to an identification with the individual listener: precisely BECAUSE here one cannot speak of a "represented." A "that which is represented" is missing in sound. In its place a space is left open as in a mirror. Sound, music, becomes a portrait of its individual perceivers.
(...Inattentiveness implies open-ended wandering. And only this can lead to the "encounter," to that which might still not be established a priori.)"
*These notes are a follow-up to notes on Chord 2013, which describe some basic conceptual origins of the netmusic performance projects. These notes directly below are more specific to the performance of Agujero / Hole. For an introduction to the Netmusic project, click here.
"A thing is a hole in a thing it is not" --Robert Smithson
I had the privilege of performing the second site-specific netmusic piece in Mexico City on November 23, at the home of Maria and Lats (elusive last names) at Dr Atl 217 in Santa Maria la Ribera. Rolando Hernandez, who graciously coordinated the night of music (titled "Error 404"), set me up with Lats and Maria after the originally planned venue fell through. Though I only began working on the piece four days before the concert, I was given enough hours each day to deal with the space and eventually present something I felt enthusiastic about.
My process began by a long period of "tuning," something that's become essential to my concept of practice. It entails a combination of listening, recording, playing tones in the space, walking around to hear different acoustic perspectives and material characteristics in the space, more listening, etc. In this case the space I chose was the rooftop of the house. I do this for hours and try not to have any ideas until later. I find that trying to not have ideas (which is impossible), the ideas that do pop up later on are the ones that are right. They've given the space and my tuning/listening process enough time to breathe before they assert something. Then I hold on to those ideas loosely with the understanding that they still might not be the best ones for the situation. Because with time the environment changes. The fountain in the park across the street, for example, was a prominent sound there in the afternoon, but later it shut off and gave way to candy hawkers, evening traffic and distant covers of Pink Floyd.
The space was extremely rich acoustically. As the house was situated on a corner and across from a park, an interesting mix of teenagers skating, voices, birds, sirens, dogs and steady auto traffic mixed with other nearby light-industrial drones (drills?). The nearly chest-height concrete wall that enclosed the roof, as well as the full-sized exterior walls of the bedroom built on top of the roof, had a significant EQ effect when crouching or sitting on the roof's floor. Many sounds were filtered out while higher-frequency sounds produced inside the walls reverberated off the walls and floor. Through this acoustic enclosure I had the idea to cut a virtual hole in the roof space, imagining that sounds from an alternative outside world were finally allowed to resonate freely inside this space. This idea became clear to me on the second day of tuning.
The hole, while composed mostly of sounds that I found outside/below the space, was strictly metaphorical. Like my previous netmusic presentation in July (see Chord 2013 below), this one was executed by a laptop placed on the floor. My web browser read a page that I programmed and whose sounds I recorded and uploaded. It included sine tones that were tuned to different aspects of the environment and very loosely formed a sequence of chords, just like the July piece. This one also included a white noise element that I gleaned from a fountain in the park across the street (a very prominent part of the daytime soundscape here). A gradient of MP3/Ogg compression bitrates changed the quality of this noise as the piece progressed. Here is a schematic of the samples used in the composition:
Samples were cut and exported at durations and volumes that felt right, not according to any formal system. The compression gradient (progressively lower quality audio from Section I to III) might have been too subtle to notice over the 25+ minutes of the outdoor performance, but it is very apparent when listening indoors. And since Firefox defaults to reading the Ogg files while Chrome and others default to MP3, the sound character of agujero / hole diverges pretty sharply by the end of the piece depending on which browser you use to read it. Below, for example, is one compressed sample from section III, "fountain9," converted to WAV files for comparison in whatever browser you're using right now:
I've been interested in dimensions of white noise for some time now-- not for its connotations of signal failure or decay, but because of its immersive qualities and musical-semantic ambiguity. I could get into more detail about my relationship with noise elsewhere (it's a serious relationship), but for this piece I was interested in 1) the limit between hearing-as-noise and hearing-as-recording (a fountain), 2) the way this type of full-spectrum sound demonstrates the coloration of compression codecs like mp3 and Ogg, and 3) the way these particular samples interacted with the surface material of the roof. There are probably other reasons, but I'll save it for later.
I'm grateful to Arcangel Constantini for the first set of the night, an improvisation using a homemade instrument that converts electromagnetic induction signals into densely textured sound. And also to Antonio Dominguez and Juan Garcia who then improvised together on visuals and bass, respectively. The quality, variety, conciseness, and good vibe of these two sets lent considerable momentum into the beginning of mine, which closed the night. Between twenty and thirty people climbed the stairs to the roof of the building. We waited and mingled for about ten minutes before starting the piece. Once I placed the laptop on the floor in position, opened it and loaded the page, the audience became silent and listened intently. It wasn't until a few minutes later that people gradually began to move around freely and train their ears on the expanded space rather than the laptop speakers alone. It was very clear the way that this adjustment mirrored my own process of tuning in preparing the piece. As listeners moved, the pattern of reflection on the concrete walls and floor changed; as we changed our perspective to hear from different positions, we changed the acoustic character of the space itself.
At the time of the performance the ambient sounds described above were joined by more dogs barking, train whistles, nearby church bells, and music passing by on car radios. Visually the illuminated laptop screen on an otherwise dark roof created the appearance of a negative hole, parallel to the positive hole that piped in sounds external to the enclosed space. After 20 minutes the screen faded to dark and left only the acoustic hole for us. Then the sounds ended a few minutes after that. Allowing a deep breath's worth of rest after the sounds' end, I walked slowly to the computer and closed it. As with the previous netmusic performance, applause and my thanks were followed by quiet lingering in the space.
* * *
There's probably more to write about the different dimensions of the piece's title, the ways in which agujero / hole functions as a hole, both as a performance and a website as it exists now. The Smithson quote above seems related, though it didn't come to mind until writing these notes. Perhaps my thinking about Ablinger's passage below also had me thinking about holes as black squares... Anyway, I got into some pretty minute technical detail here; certain things I'd rather leave up to interpretation.
"'Liberation of sounds' (Varese, Cage) is necessarily connected to the techniques of isolation and de-contextualization. On a more philological or abstract level, however, I am wondering whether the rhetoric of liberation is hiding something: The intended individualization-- only subjects can be liberated!-- in truth is an objectification.
It is the black square aspect of music, however, which is the less explored, the less exposed, and that must be treated carefully. I believe, though, that history itself has already delivered enough reference points to indicate the black square's relevance and true existence.
But I'd like to add one further thought related to my own research and to the 'totality' aspect which can generate effects of high individualization. As soon as we shift our attention to its perceptual consequences, as soon as it is no longer about treating the sounds as individuals to be liberated-- then white noise is a wonder field for experience and exploration. In particular, the field of (individual) projection, interpretation, and acoustic illusion, is well suited for examining the area of listening and the constructive role of our brain in that process.
What I learned from my own work-- and especially its black square aspect, is, that listening has nothing to do with an outer world that we receive passively. Rather, listening is a creative activity which forms both what we hear and how we hear. We are creating, therefore, nothing less than: ourselves."
It Is What It Is
October 10, 2013
Michael Asher critiques Robert Irwin, Dan Flavin (indirectly) and himself
"In response to works such as [Robert Irwin's "Disc Paintings"], my work employed a formally comparable point of departure, but was manifested in real space and time. The materials and the structure prevented the work from being perceived in exclusively visual and objectified terms. The constructed space functioned as a container for perceptual phenomena leading beyond the usual wall and floor references in the placement of works of art in a gallery.
The light in this installation, rather than highlighting any one point of the display walls of the container, was directed away from them and dispersed over the floor into the room. All of the elements-- the spread of tinted light, the walls and the equipment generating light-- were easily visible and accessible and existed on the same spatial level as the viewer. This was in contradistinction to installation work where colored light emanated from specific objects and materials, and where the light source was contained in objects or concealed as constructions.
It becomes apparent to me in retrospect that the experience of the work was based on a contradiction of principles: nonvisual material had been treated and organized according to principles that had been derived from formal-visual aesthetics. The work served to aestheticize those contradictions. At the same time the work became problematic: instead of the work's being developed from and contingent upon existing material conditions, it was based on, and developed by the use of preselected materials and principles."
From Michael Asher, Writings 1973-1983 on works 1969-1979, p.18-23
"November 7-December 31, 1969: La Jolla Museum of Art Full PDF
Notes on Chord 2013 September 18, 2013
On July 13, 2013 I performed Chord 2013 on a public plaza in Woodside, Queens. The work fulfilled a dual function: to constitute a site-specific performance at the place and time of its premiere, and to exist as an online netmusic piece (like many previous pieces) thereafter. The concept of site figures into both of these functions. For the former function, site presented the performance venue and the environment for which I composed the piece-- chose the material, pitches, densities, time intervals of each section, volume ranges, etc. These musical elements that determined the performance were then exported to their second context for the online version. In this sense the online piece takes on traces of the physical site of the performance. It's a site-specific piece, migrated to a different site. As I've discussed in previous texts (below) about the netmusic project, this new site is unique to each instance of access; so the trace of an original, physical performance site then resonates in the ecosystems where the online piece is accessed and heard.
This is typical of post-Internet time and place (Vierkant, McHugh). Original events or things often start as IRL phenomena, then are exported to an online holding place. At the point of online access, traces of the original site enter the site of access. The mixing of site traces, some obvious and some more liminal, is a trademark of our time. (I started the netmusic project partially to explore the sound dimension of this phenomenon.) Some IRL events these days are more aware of this than others. A famous earlier parallel was the 1960 American presidential debate between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon. By most reports, Nixon looked terrible on TV partially because he refused to wear makeup (which probably looks ridiculous in real life). His lack of preparation for the TV screen, even if his appearance was completely normal for real life, turned out to work against him. Similarly, contemporary events are more or less aware of their afterlife on the Internet. Composing for both IRL context and online afterlife seems to be a necessary aesthetic adaptation at this point.
* * *
The physical site of this performance was a special one for me. For about a year I would cross this plaza for my daily commute and marvel at its emptiness and lack of function (several other plazas and full-fledged parks with nicer benches were built just across the street). Very few people ever spent time on this plaza, though it was often strewn with a moderate dusting of trash. The plaza sits at a crossroads of Broadway, 37th Avenue, and 69th Street, and overhangs the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and a freight railroad line. The heavy auto traffic here probably intimidates the less determined pedestrians from crossing through. Languages heard here, when audible, are Bengali, Nepali, Tibetan, Spanish, and Urdu much more often than English. Most prominent sonically is multidirectional auto traffic: cars, buses and trucks at highway cruising speed below and city stop-and-go speeds on the upper levels. The complex traffic pattern requires these autos to stop often so that brake squeaks and releases are frequent. The concrete ground and fence enclosure amplifies some of these sound elements and provides some interesting reflectivity for the high-pitched sine tones of the piece.
Socially I found that this was a space where people pass and sit very occasionally, but do not gather so there was no risk here of disrupting a hangout or someone's temporary home, but there was the possibility of catching and engaging public passersby. People did stop and listen-- and in one case ask about what was happening. That this interaction felt positive for the performance was proof that the piece was not too fragile for its context.
I placed the performing laptop on the ground close to the rear of this unusual stage, at a visually and acoustically central point on the plaza. The idea of a laptop as a surrogate for a performer is one that appeals to me and seems eminently normal for our time. A few weeks prior I attended a wedding where some of the groom's family members participated via transatlantic telepresence. The scene of a laptop sitting in a chair, turned to the festivities, occupying a place-setting, guests greeting and speaking to it intermittently, stuck in my mind. The next logical step would have been the laptop eating and drinking, maybe dancing. In a laptop performance I would rather give performance credit where it is due (to the laptop) than sit behind it as though I have any control over the sound once the program begins.
Because I really don't. What I did do was choose the musical material (sine wave samples, in this case) and wrote the program that outlines how they are realized over time. I decided on this set of pitches and durations after auditioning them on this plaza. As for the structure of the composition, the idea was based on my previous piece Chord (2012) which very simply looped a set of five sine tones at various volumes, separated by various intervals of silence. For Chord 2013 my purpose was to expand this idea to an indeterminate but finite duration so that it could be performed live. For this piece, the "chord" operates in three sections of variable duration (each lasting around 8 to 16 minutes). Five tones are heard in the first section. Two of these tones remain in the second section, to which three new tones are added. The third section drops the two remaining tones from the first section, keeps two from the second section, adding two new tones and reprising one from the first section again. A total of nine tones (see figure below) with a maximum of five heard at one time. The total duration of the piece is between 24 and 48 minutes; the July 13 performance was on the longer end of that range.
A modest but committed audience gradually arrived a little after 8 PM, standing in different areas of the plaza and sitting in benches that face the street, away from the performing laptop. Because of the high-frequency material and the plaza's enclosed walls, the sound varied somewhat subtly depending on listeners' position and orientation. Though most of the laptop sound carried well over the plaza's ambient sounds, it became more difficult to distinguish which was which as the piece progressed. This was an intended effect. Socially and architecturally the openness of this venue brought the music closer to a feeling of everyday life: some people walked by the plaza without noticing, others stopped and listened for a bit, dogs wagged and barked, listeners chatted occasionally. This effect of music and life bleeding into one another also manifested in the performance's understated beginning and end. The same bleeding effect, between mundane online activity and Music, operates in the web version. Finally, the light on the plaza also shifted dramatically as the sun set during the performance. When a period of enough silence suggested that section III was over, I walked over to the laptop and closed it. We listeners dispersed from the plaza after 20 or 30 minutes, as though the end of the performance was no reason to leave.
It Is What It Is
July 3, 2013
"If we must curve and plumb line, compass and square to make something right, this means cutting away its inborn nature; if we must use cords and knots, glue and lacquer to make something firm, this means violating its natural virtue. So the crouchings and bendings of rites and music, the smiles and beaming looks of benevolence and righteousness, which are intended to comfort the hearts of the world, in fact destroy their constant naturalness.
For in the world there can be constant naturalness. Where there is constant naturalness, things are arced not by the use of the curve, straight not by the use of the plumb line, rounded not by compasses, squared not by T squares, joined not by glue and lacquer, bound not by ropes and lines. Then all things in the world, simple and compliant, live and never know how they happen to live; all things, rude and unwitting, get what they need and never know how they happen to get it. Past and present it has been the same; nothing can do injury to this [principle]. Why then come with benevolence and righteousness, that tangle and train of glue and lacquer, ropes and lines, and try to wander in the realm of the Way and its Virtue? You will only confuse the world!"
Zhuangzi (Chuang-Tzu), Section 8, Trans. B Watson
It Is What It Is, Antonyms
June 12, 2013
A skeuomorph is a physical ornament or design on an object made to resemble another material or technique. Examples include pottery embellished with imitation rivets reminiscent of similar pots made of metal, or a software calendar that imitates the appearance of a paper desk calendar.
I came across this article today in which the writer, Sophie Heawood, claims that music has "died" for her "because she started listening to it on [her] laptop." After a move that prompted her to get rid of her CDs and only listen to music on Spotify, she is left with no other choice: "It's not so much that my laptop made all other physical forms redundant, it's that it made music so dull that I lost interest in music."
I'm grateful that someone-- especially a pop culture writer-- would take on this topic so candidly, as cursory and diaristic as the article is. This attitude is similar to one that I've heard from self-proclaimed music devotees, audiophiles, and record junkies; music culture is declining further (as it always has) to a lower-fidelity, higher-convenience state where the dying craft of recording-making is losing out to devious industry executives and their fickle or indifferent target market. But since the first shift of this kind, from the edison cylinder to the disc record,* this has been a recurring phenomenon in the perennially mass market-oriented music tech field.
It's completely reasonable to hold this attitude-- to listen to records on hi-fi stereo systems and embrace the dying arts of quality recording and quality listening. We should certainly preserve this part of our musical heritage. But to lament the demise of these arts as the "death of music" is to underestimate the agency we have to change our relationship to the music-technological present. (The article cited is a particularly good example of this helpless lament as the author describes the sequence of events that carried her from music enjoyment to music death.) There are positive and creative ways to deal with this problem, or rather, to understand that this is less a problem and more an inevitable change in the way our culture deals with music.
Listening is an active process. Though contemporary ears have gotten used to listening to recordings as high-fidelity stereo reproductions of studio or live acoustics, we don't have to keep listening as though all music is produced and distributed this way. To many of us including Heawood, hi-fi listening is a lost cause for most of the music that's around us. Whether it's top 40, Mozart muzak or smooth jazz, music is so often used as a placeholder-- as a statement that "there is music playing here"-- as opposed to being treated as significant in itself. Retail stores, transit hubs and "please hold, thank you for holding" situations are proof of this phenomenon.
Rather than shutting ears and turning up noses to this treatment of sound, we can listen. We might not immediately like the blatant mistreatment of something so dear, but this is our culture and it is what it is. We can close our ears and minds by blocking out the noise; or we can continue, as good musicians are trained to do skillfully, to expand our listening and see what happens. It's not going to hurt anyone. What we get might not be more enjoyable or uplifting, but it's definitely more real. And equally important, our practice of active listening can remain boundless rather than delineated and exclusive, an on-off binary. Listening to the real world is better music than anyone can create.
This puts musicians in a really interesting position right now. Some of us will continue to work in the tradition of stereo records, the tradition of high fidelity recording, playback, and listening. This is not wrong. What excites me now is the possibilities that stretch these traditions: how do musicians deal with shitty audio quality, cheap consumer playback hardware, streaming, compression noise, internet distribution, loud environments, bad acoustics? When our safe listening spaces are challenged, musicians have the power (privilege or joy, really) to expand our aesthetic field, to fold in these challenges as new concepts and contexts for music.
Hito Steyerl has written convincingly in defense of the poor image. A very similar argument can be made in defense of poor audio. Eric Laska has an essay forthcoming outlining his "Thoughts on Bad Acoustics." Steyerl and Laska both insist that declining consumer media quality is unrelated to the demise of music quality. In fact, maybe it's a good thing: low quality challenges musicians to open our ears and our aesthetics, to allow for a richer repertoire of future musical material.
*this compromised the recording by creating a differential in the stylus' angle to the grooves: with a cylinder, the stylus is always perpendicular to the groove; with a disc, the stylus hits the groove at a range of angles as it moves from the beginning to the end of a record side, creating some variation in the playback. This shift, according to my colleagues at WKCR-FM, was the first of many similar shifts in which quality lost out to consumer and industry convenience.
]Blnkt Talk Series - With Eric Laska
March 15, 2013
Excerpt of conversation with Eric Laska and Jordan Topiel Paul in room with Impulse Blasts (impulse-blasts.com) and Wash (topiel.info/wash.html) double sound installation. Thanks to John Paetsch for hosting, Bertolain Elysee for recording and all present for participating.
Through a Pane of Glass
May 22, 2013
On researching the MP3 codec for various reasons, I came across this information on Wikipedia:
"The song "Tom's Diner" by Suzanne Vega was the first song used by Karlheinz Brandenburg to develop the MP3. Brandenburg adopted the song for testing purposes, listening to it again and again each time refining the scheme, making sure it did not adversely affect the subtlety of Vega's voice." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mp3#Development)
"Vega wrote the song based on a comment by her friend Brian Rose, a photographer, who mentioned that in his work, he sometimes felt as if 'he saw his whole life through a pane of glass, and [...] like he was the witness to a lot of things, but was never really involved in them.' " (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom%27s_Diner)
This is an MP3 of "Tom's Diner" compressed at the lowest bitrate available to me, 8 kbps. (Download)
It Is What It Is, "Specific Objects"
April 16, 2013
American artist Donald Judd wrote an essay titled "Specific Objects" (click for PDF) in 1964 (published in Arts Yearbook 8, 1965). Judd advocates a new type of work that operates in real space as opposed to the illusionistic 2-dimensional canvas. These Specific Objects are what they are; they represent nothing else.
It Is What It Is, HESPT
April 2, 2013
HESPT is a word whose phonetic and graphical appearance are the same as the word's meaning.
Every instance of hespt is hespt.
It Is What It Is
March 3, 2013
The Sufi mystic Rumi titled his volume of discourses "Fihi Ma Fihi" or "It Is What It Is"
What's the difference between faith and creative practice? Download PDF
Net Music (2011-14)
In the fall of 2011 I began making Net Music "studies" as a way to explore a native format for music on the internet. A few ideas guided this project:
The internet is a relatively new medium, just like cylinders, discs, tapes and CDs were at different points in the last century. Music has always developed symbiotically with its media and spaces. Just as you can point to a CD and say "this is music," I want to ask whether you can open a web site and say the same.
The specifics of sound on the internet are also unique. With a single html document that points to a few small sound files, these pieces create resonance wherever they're opened. Similar to other Net Art, the work physically lives on a server but is heard through a unique pathway each time: through the internet connection, the browser software, the audio hardware, and the ambient acoustics of the space. So a static html file brings about an open and dynamic range of resonances.
A web site is a different listening context for music. What do you do with a web site that's only sound and a color? Do you listen intently as if it's a recording? Do you keep it as an open tab as you do your other business? Do you try to peek at the source code to see what's going on? How long do you listen before you lose patience, wander elsewhere, close the tab? Regardless of your first time, do you ever revisit that page? How do we listen to this?
It is what it is. Unlike a recording, each instance of Net Music is its own acoustic thing. Just as many paintings simulate three-dimensional space, recordings also usually reproduce the original or optimal acoustics of a studio, concert hall, or stereo listening space. This is true even with direct recordings of electroacoustic sound because playback can have more or less fidelity to the original (ie. there is a best way to hear it-- on these speakers, in this room, etc.). But Net Music has no original acoustics to reproduce. Each playback is original and specific to itself. No version can be better or worse.
Despite the conceptual workings, it's really all about listening. Avant-garde music follows a pretty basic principle: the world changes, listening changes. Of course listening is always the same but the context for listening coevolves with life.