Co-chaired by ￼Richard Elliott (Lecturer in Popular Music, Sussex.ac.uk) and
Professor Sally Jane Norman (Professor of Performance Technologies and Director of the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts)
University of Sussex
22nd November 2013, 9am – 4:30pm
University of Sussex, 22 Nov 2013
The interweaving of song and place as a literally resonant cultural identifier offers a richly interdisciplinary research focus.
Music, sonic arts, cultural anthropology, and human geography feature amongst disciplines mobilised by this domain, which is also strongly invested by a range of creative practices including poetry, architecture, acoustic ecologies, and site-specific sound art.
Drawing together theorists and practitioners, this seminar aims to identify key research questions associated with the theme of “Singing Places”, with a view to launching a longer- term programme of academic and artistic events.
This wide-ranging cross-disciplinary series of talks and presentations was hopefully the beginning of a rich and provoking longer exchange.
Arriving from Southampton, in time for Richard Follett’s paper “Soundscapes, Creolized Identities, and the Matrix of Memory”, I was immediately absorbed by the richness of anecdote and cross-reference beginning with Mudimbe’s Matrix of Memory (see also http://aha.confex.com/aha/2009/webprogram/Paper2306.html)
“Historians who have examined the sounds of New World slavery and the soundscape of plantation cultures quite reasonably focus on the audible transcript left by the enslaved.
Song, folktale, hollers, and religiously inspired sound contributed to an audible slave culture, that Shane and Graham White conclude, “was made to be heard.” These audible and visible shards of slave testimony constitute what Valentin Yves Mudimbe refers to as “a matrix of memory,” a diasporic African “orature.”
…the aural soundscape of slavery leaves “sonic echoes” of subaltern agency and visibility deep into the twentieth century. . .we should not think of audibility and silence in binary terms; they were instead slipping modes of expression, at times intensely soldered, at other points, gliding linguistically and culturally, giving voice in a multiplicity of ways.”
His talk raised questions about whether diasporic performance and/or expression is necessarily or inevitably subversive and transgressive.
Quoting Paul Gilroy on the “unsayable, unspeakable” parts of remembered terror, which are at once audible and silent and J. C. Scott’s ‘hidden transcripts’ and the ‘infra-politics of resistance’ “Domination and the Arts of Resistance”, he segued elegantly into contemporary Afro-Brazilian culture’s Angolan and Congolese inheritance and the similarities between capoeira, carnival, samba and Brazilian football, who share a use of unexpected elisions, silences and necessarily guileful pauses.
A plausible etymology for the term ‘cool’ was argued, keeping your composure while performing seemingly impossible complications around European dance moves to entertain, beguile and confound their slave masters. Moving to the rhythms formed by the audible but silent interstices, suggested but evanescent other fluctuations between the only beat perceptible to the white men’s ears.
Richard Follett is Professor of American History at the University of Sussex
Richard Elliott, “Songs in/and place” began with a comparison of white American country singer Alan Jackson’s “Where I come from” and Jay-Z’s “Where I’m from” in terms of lyrical content, tone and evocative referential statements of origin.
An eclectic and broadly referenced piece, largely focused on Portuguese Fado music: Fado originated in the dock areas of Lisbon – and therefore was a music of many sources, concerned with place, origin, identity – unlike flamenco and tango for example, with no accompanying dance form.
Native American folk tales, he said, were often based in familiar physical locations while in all other aspects remaining fabulous, incredible.
Elliott made me wonder how the textures of geo-located sound structures can be made more to reflect and explore the audible and inaudible interstices between present sounds in physical locations.
Richard Elliott is Lecturer in Popular Music at the University of Sussex.
Jean Martin [Brighton.ac.uk] presented “Echoes of the Past” a proposed project to bring live streamed sound from functioning British cathedrals and/or prisons to the ruined twelfth century abbey and (from 1804 to 1963) prison at Fontevraud.
He presented the ethical and logistical difficulties, enlarging on the sense that there is a value and beauty in the sound’s live transmission that would transcend, in its unpredictability, any constructed sounds used to artificially evoke such an ambience as would be broadcast from a live functioning institution.
There was discussion about the nature of liveness, given digital latency and streaming unpredictability.
Sound translocation through technology
Evocative: presence created
He touched on the possibilities afforded by free internet radio streaming hosters, such as myradiostream.com and Icecast, a free streaming media project maintained by the Xiph.org Foundation.
My favourite quote of the day:
“In spite of the internet we still have our bodies” Jean Martin
Jean Martin is a musicologist, sound researcher, composer, writer about film sound and music, radio producer and documentary film maker
Composer Matthew Hodson presented an astonishingly beautiful example of his work interpreting and responding to landscape in which he analysed the frequency and timbral content of field recordings from the South Downs and after (incredibly effective, sensitive) processing of the original sounds, superimposed synthetic sound textures that interwove in a delightful, indefinable beast-machine complex. He asked how sound is deliberately built into places in terms of the sounds produced by the place and its resonances. How are places sonically branded as a part of their design and construction?
He would take the music composed in the studio and perform it in situ with speakers under trees. The heard effect in the examples played sounded as though they were a studio-based mixture of field recording and composed additional layers but the lightness of touch in production made the seams and boundaries of the work difficult to untangle on first audition.
Hodson touches on the ethical question of introducing sounds into an environment that interfere with its functioning, reminding me of the pleasure of introducing sound to landscape inaudibly for all but the individual headset-wearing listener, with GPS-enabled notours software.
Composer and Sound Designer, www.matthewhodson.com www.bitbin.co.uk
Composer Danny Bright presented his sound installation at Magna, the ex-Templeborough steel works at Rotherham.
Unusual in being at once part dis-used, part ruined and part re-purposed, the site is palpably populated by sonic ghosts.
The former Electric Arc Furnace was turned into a melting shop – where scrap metal was melted down to be re-used in new metal fabrication.
The scale of the site is staggering; one mile wide with networks of rail, sidings, 14 separate furnaces. It closed in 1996 and was dormant until the Millennium Project initiated its partial transformation into a science education centre.
It remains largely derelict, some underground areas filled with construction waste, others including tunnels and shafts for communications, cabling and the movement of people remain accessible.
These became the viscera of an enormous instrument, the mouth of which, a hand-riveted steel trumpet bell, protruding from an old manhole allowed the resonance of the building to literally become its own song.
A striking aspect of this intervention was the lack of interpretative or manipulative work done – not attempting to evoke or speak for the place, but giving a mouth to the place’s own voice.
The arduinos and control circuits running a three channel MAX patch had the required simplicity to never require maintenance and to be operable from a simple three button, two slider console the visiting children would push to its limits.
The console was constructed from the retrieved controls of a dismantled crane.
Bright referenced Michael Mayerfield Bell’s 1997 “The Ghosts of Place”:
“a ubiquitous aspect of phenomenology of space is ghosts: the sense of presence of those who are not physically there…”
Bright calls his process of summoning and repurposing the naturally occurring sounds of the place Sonic Ghost Composition.
It is one of a number of similar projects he has so far completed, looking at the architectural and acoustic resonances of a place, allowing them to take precedence over compositional techniques.
It was a way of giving ultimate voice to the historical and personal references and resonances of the site, as is appropriate to a design that celebrates and memorialises the place’s former existence and the people who manned, operated and lived through it.
Listener interaction was reported as often being random and showing very short attention spans – or indifference or incomprehension – but for Bright, the possibility to hear the “space singing its own song” gave it weight and validity that he hadn’t fully expected and this has now come profoundly to inform his current thinking and planning for future work.
Danny Bright is a sound designer, composer, recordist and sonic manipulator http://www.bogstandardaudio.co.uk/Sound%20Tunnel.html
Co-chair Professor Sally Jane Norman gave a penultimate concluding talk that moved rapidly and sure-footedly over many connections between historical and contemporary sound sites: places re-located and de-located.
Robert Fludd, 1621, The Tuning of the World,
Soundhouses in Bacon’s New Atlantis, 1648,
Boston Symphony Hall, designed by Wallace Sabine in 1900, held to be the first example of acoustically aware modern concert hall architecture,
The Oracle Room of the Hypogeum at Malta, dating from around 3000 BC, discovered accidentally in 1902 by builders, the only known prehistoric underground necropolis with an acoustic clearly designed to evoke and recall mystical truths and revelations.
A cross section of the elaborate, brilliantly designed Versailles Opera, 1770,
The Philips Pavilion of 1958, with big boss Le Corbusier’s name on it but actually designed by composer-architect Xenakis and sonically populated or its opening by Varese’s Poeme Electronique for 400 speakers. 55 years ago!
Francois Bayle’s acousmonium, whose intent was to engage listeners with the timbral and temporal qualities of ‘sampled’ and processed sounds but which had the opposite effect, causing them to anthropomorphise and interpret as constructed, communicative sounds that which he was merely attempting to curate and present.
Keith Fullerton Whitman’s 2011 deconstruction and acoustic repopulation of a space at the Kontraste Festival at Krems in Austria,
and Michel Redolfi and David Hykes’ transmission of Thoronet Abbey in France to the Kitchen in New York,
Bennett Hogg’s “when violins were trees” – placing the instruments in woodland and underwater settings for them to be played by natural elements in the environment [The Violin, The River and Me],
Max Neuhaus, sounding out the New York underground through vent shafts…
Stockhausen’s proposal for the ‘urban sonic vacuum cleaner’….. in light particularly of the approaching mercantile cacophony of Christmas, so bereft as it is of all poetry.
Perhaps places need to be quietened before it is possible really to listen to them.
How might one develop layers of the past and present that make them mutually responsive?
The past and sonic ghosts need not necessarily be an expression of lamentation but also celebratory, inventing and imagining futures of the space
Identifying common themes between Body – Song – Place among the speakers of the day.
Michael Bull’s summing up began with the story of the Dutchmen who told him to speak for as long as he wanted, so he did 2 ½ hours. We were not so fortunate, as the day was drawing to a close, but he touched on how…
notion of place is increasingly abstract in a digital-dominated experience
citing as example the sounds of ‘Canterbury’ and Manchester’ bands – acknowledging that many of us could already not remember these,
that the Cavern is no longer a site of musical production or performance but a museum to a historical artifact, removed from the context of its inception,
the commodification of sound in place as an ever-increasing trend,
power and social class relations dominating our reading of sound in specific places
mechanisation constructing the imaginary nostalgic
e.g. Italian Americans pining for ‘home’ when listening to Caruso in the 1920s
Studio tourism, even of vanished studios…..
What was absent from the day’s discussion in Bull’s view?
Whose sounds are in the space, musical identities being manufactured through constructed ideologies.
Histories of song show that much was located in occupations and we refer to places as historical phenomena, where ‘place’ is eroded, dissolved by the ubiquity of digital.
Anders Brevik was listening on headphones to the Lord of the Rings as he murdered teenagers in Norway four years ago.
What place emotional, psychological, imaginary was he occupying in the middle of all this?
Surely there is a direct link between the sadness of much nostalgia – even for time before our own memory – and sadness at the loss of one’s own days?
There is an ancient Japanese hillside cemetery, a place of great tranquility and subtle sonic and acoustic interest where Bull was enjoying an evening stroll, when suddenly a hundred loudspeakers began to produce a kind of ‘celestial shopping mall’: a horrible and disconnecting experience raising questions about the imposition of sonic effect, someone’s vision or ideology, on a public space.
The alienating and intrusive effect brings a strongly political aspect to discussion of sound in public places.
Auget’s Non-Places, to return to question of ‘what is space?’ – how we construct meaning even for the most apparently clearly defined:
e.g. the relative experience of singing at Greenham Common by the protesters (unifying, supportive), the police (subversive, defiant) and military (obstructive)
Consider parents and children arguing about what sounds to play – using the sounds they wish to hear to define the space they are occupying from an own perspective.
Just some rough notes to try to remember the enormous glut of new ideas and references I’ve enjoyed during this fantastic day of sound and speech.
More sound next time, I agree!