October 29, 2011

Coming to

It’s probably safe to say that during his invention of acousmatics Pierre Schaeffer did not listen to a Graham Lambkin record.

I’m reading up Schaeffer because I’m listening to Softly Softly Copy Copy, and there’s the sound of breakers crashing in the background, while upfront somebody’s stepping through the snow, very deliberately crunching each grain of snowcrust because the sound is so good, and over that enters an orchestra of meadowlarks (I don’t know birdsong, that just seems an appropriate bird name here) from up in the wings . . . and I start to feel queasy, and I swear it’s not because I would imagine myself to be in those incongruous places all at once, as Schaeffer keeps insinuating. Rather, my reaction is to an illicit violation of craft, an undisciplined buttering-up of layers of field recordings.

Schaeffer sees sound as an object removed from the circumstance of its production. When we listen, we are only to hear a sound, not the thing or the person or the circumstance that made it. His perspective is not so much analytically minded, but rather that of the creative artist who feels the need to push sound toward greater abstraction. So he bases his theory on an assumption that sounds would implicate their source, and he tries to severe that connection, while I, more of an art-historical bent, am not primarily interested in how a sound came to be, but more in what it references. This may still lead to the same questions, it is just a switch in perspective. Obviously I at once start wondering if the noises referencing wind, which permeate the record, are actually field-recorded through an unshielded microphone, or if they’re a distorted undecipherable something else. The recording perspective is important in Lambkin’s work, the fact of the recording stands between us and the sound, the recordist acts as the unreliable narrator, so explicit that Lambkin will occasionally do dreaded Beavis and Butthead impersonations (that’s not my comparison, but standard terminology) over the recordings—and I cannot remotely imagine the frame of mind necessary to listen to these kind of skits. I guess as blank comments on aural proceedings they make sense (though I’m not sure if they’re not taking the piss out of the dutiful listener, but anyway, you can safely listen to Softly Softly, no grunts and mumbles here).

Sound objects, that is what Schaeffer calls the sounds he has abstracted from their source and that are now realized in recordings. It’s a wonderful word, and a concept that helps listening to this music, where sound objects in time are presented and rearranged; and sometimes they fall in place harmonically, and sometimes our unreliable narrator barely keeps them together with a kind of sloppy determination, because this is a music that also speaks of accidents: rough-hewn loops and unexpected dropouts.

As the music switches between field recordings, instruments, and more unidentifiable noises, I start categorizing figurative sound objects (those that reference nature), then non-objective (the noises) and maybe representational ones (the instruments). This sort of gives me a framework where my curiosity about the sounds will not get in the way of listening to the music. I still lack the right attitude to keep the ears uncluttered . . . until I notice that I sort of listen to the entry of each sound as if I were just coming to . . . from a darkness, not knowing where I was, and the sounds were the only sensory input available, and I had to read them if I wanted to make sense again. These amplified details of sound might carry messages to tell me what I needed to know, if only I could fit the sound objects into a larger narrative.

I found this excerpt on youtube, you may press play now.

There’s a storm out there, compressed into an old movie soundtrack mood, and for a moment it seems as if a deep voice wanted to escape from its fold, but the storm transmission wins over, sometimes emulating feedback frequencies, soon calming a little. Dropping out, then starting anew as if a sample had come to an end without the performer noticing and were hastily triggered again to paste over the silence. The storm rises once more and then really dies down, and when after a pause it begins again, cued in by some crackle, this time I’m sure it’s the same sample, because the same deep voice seems to want to escape from the whine right at the beginning. Immediately the birds come in, solo birds that I’m sure are field recordings, but the accompanying flock, flying formations, seem to break into pure noise when they fly too near, so maybe I just imagine they’re birds because I expect them to be by association. This theme of sounds appearing to be figurative objects maybe only in context, but turning abstract when cranked up to more menacing foreground volume, stays throughout the record. Metal clangs mark time, later chimes are added, more obviously musical objects that act like a background score to the sound protagonists. Then there are steps in the snow, leftovers from another part of the story, again birds swelling into white noise (surely this also is a reference to the trautonium avians in the Hitchcock movie, wild turns of badly superimposed patterns of flocks of birds flitting across the aural landscapes). More wind, this time imitating a simulation of itself on a flute . . . Then creature noises . . .

There might be a way to listen to this and not ask what it is. But what for? The changes in the shapes of the sound objects are so deliberate, and as mentioned there are the sounds that resemble natural sources by association which then dissolve into staged scenes recorded in the studio (so the percentage of field recordings is probably much lower than I would think). I’ve said it somewhere before that the idea of music as the most abstract art (the condition of which all other arts aspire to) seems strange to me, and I guess that idea only could work as long as you the psychology of a performance as completely outside the piece itself (which I think makes no sense, see my earlier post on Marina Abramovic) . . . Take the classic jazz situation, sax steps up to the microphone: maybe a character known to you from other recordings, with a clear-cut set of musical attributes, lean or heavy, cool or fiery, a musical persona often augmented through choice biographical anecdotes. That character now handles the narrative across the changes for a chorus or two, each note an anecdote that tells of the past and other players, but keeps possibilities open. While the frame of the story is sort of prescribed (well, at latest on the second listen to a recording), there is always the distinct possibility of failure, of not living up to the powers the player is documented proving at other times, of lacking depth of character. The music will be experienced blow by blow, and can be read as a series of decisions (one can review a 1940s small group session in the manner of teamsports aftertalk), but what I take from it and remember is a deeper impression of that fictional character, the player.

Less clear-cut, but similar, a character is built when I listen to Softly Softly, most obviously through the decision-making process whose traces have not been obliterated but rather are presented proudly. A perceived personality, an opponent on the other side of the speakers, who loves accident, the degradation of sound, and grafting together the surf, the snow, the birds, creating a hybrid monster. A comic book Shakespearean cutting up the unity of place and time.

And Pierre still looks unhappy because this music is just too damn concrete.

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