Monday, June 21, 2010

Voices of the City

People who came to these things didn’t know how to listen any more, couldn’t concentrate, had no language for evaluating the specific, only the capacity to wander through post-modernity in a state of vacancy.

(David Toop, Haunted Weather)

Look around. Every second person in the street or on the bus is listening to their own sounds. It’s an experience we take for granted, a modern convenience, that we can choose to listen to music or podcasts instead of the acoustic texture of our environment - the voices of the city, the noise of the city. Every second time I leave the house on my own, I’m one of those people.

Between April and May there was an interesting coincidence of sound exhibitions in Wellington. At the City Gallery, Janet Cardiff’s flawless Forty-Part Motet. At a temporary gallery in Willis Street, Dugal McKinnon’s strident Popular Archeology. In almost every respect, each exhibition was the opposite of the other, yet they both reflected on the historical nature of sound, its recording and its reproduction in a surprisingly convergent way.

For the Motet, Cardiff took a recording by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir of Thomas Tallis’ forty-part choral work Spem in alium nunquam habui and arranged for each part to be played via a separate speaker within the gallery. Mounted on poles, the speakers are set at the approximate height of the singers' heads, so their physical arrangement resembles a curiously anthropomorphic grove. But by far the overwhelming sculptural element of the work is the sound itself, which fills the exhibition space with almost intolerable clarity and force.

Sitting on a bench, at some distance from the speakers, one could pretend to be at a performance of Tallis’ motet, but that’s the least interesting way to appreciate Cardiff’s work. It is far more tempting, irresistibly so, to wander amongst the speakers, to stand next to each of the singers, your ears to their ‘mouths’. What you get then is a distorted version of the piece in which the part sung by the chorists close to you are foregrounded, and the composition is bent out of shape. The effect is truly startling. Imagine what it would be like to be allowed to move amongst the singers in a choir, put your ear literally to their mouths and yet have them continue singing, unperturbed. Or to move in an orchestra pit, watching each note as it leaves a string, or a key. Besides the surreal intimacy, you get a feeling of how sound occupies its environment, and that there is no such thing as an objective, correct manner in which a composition or, for that matter, a conversation is supposed to sound. It depends on where you’re sitting, on whom or what you’re paying attention to.

The arrangement of the Motet at the city gallery was aseptically lavish, a thing of precision and sombre beauty. White walls, the forty identical, expensive-looking speakers playing the composition in a continuous, identical, carefully timed 15-minute loop. Meanwhile, down in Willis Street, in a temporary gallery reclaimed from a vacant commercial property, composer Dugal McKinnon placed thirty-five old tape recorders on a row of Lundia shelving and pressed ‘play’ on a selection of vintage pop ca. 1967 to 1994. If the stream of sounds produced by the installation was ever deliberately designed to produced a specific effect when it was first set in motion, that effect would have quickly dissipated. The different duration of each of the tapes, as well as the nature of the equipment, conspired against anything resembling a repeated precision performance; moreover, the visitors were encouraged to intrude in the selection by bringing their own tapes, some of the original tapes snapped and some of the players started malfunctioning along the way.

By the time I visited it, McKinnon’s installation sounded like a protracted pop wail. But its aim was never aesthetic: beginning with the title - Popular Archeology: a Sound Archive - the show posed questions about how we relate to our immediate cultural and technological past. Both nouns in that title must be understood ironically: the time frame, falling as it does within the lifetime of most people who are alive, cannot possibly refer to an actual archaeology, nor does a temporary and arbitrary collection of musical artefacts constitute a proper archive. But then it's hard to look at a row of tape decks and not reflect on how old that technology already seems, as does the music itself, in an industry that thrives on nostalgia but also on the constant injection of the new and on the abuse of words like classic to describe the hits of last summer, or the last decade. The word archive, too, hijacked by the jargon of personal computing, has come to mean everything and nothing, and no longer speaks of a serious attempt to preserve specific content along with information about its context.

Music, then - but the same could be said of other media - is ejected out of history, and a piece composed in the mid 1570s can be made to sound and even look more contemporary, more of this moment, more culturally relevant than yesterday's pop. Yet in the five hundred metres or so that separated the archaic cacophony of Split Enz and Sade from the digitally rendered modernity of Tallis' motet, there was something else: three or four blocks of city streets, an immersive space routinely criss-crossed by people who would rather listen to their own sounds.

Is there a voice, is there music in those city noises? Are they themselves worthy of preservation? Canadian composer Raymond Murray Schafer, author of the seminal The Tuning of the World, famously thinks so, and his ideas are still pursued three to four decades after their original formulation by means of projects - like the ongoing acoustic mapping of the city of Catania conducted by the Sicilian Soundscape Research Group - that seek to make fundamental value judgments about what constitutes meaningful sound as opposed to aural pollution. As researcher Stefano Zorzanello has explained, this value is to be found in the distinctiveness of an acoustic environment, in its unlikeness, whereas by contrast we ought to regard as noise the sounds that are the same everywhere - be they the drone of air conditioners and power lines, or the more textured din of peak-hour traffic.

Here is by way of example the sound of a Catanese fish market. If you do bother to click on the link, don’t worry that you cannot understand what is being said - neither can I. The value of the recording, if it does indeed have one, is not in its spoken content, but in that it preserves the unique acoustic signature of that place at that time; a signature that, if it is accompanied by the necessary contextual information, can become a social and historical document.

I am not aware of any well-developed projects of this kind in Aotearoa, but it seems to me that they would fit quite well within local shared knowledge models such as Kete Horowhenua’s, if not with our more institutional repositories. In terms of their likely value, consider how the principle of distinctiveness that underpins these views on the ecology of sound meshes with having a strong indigenous culture that until as little as six or seven generations ago was exclusively oral, therefore predominantly aural, and had to cultivate strong listening disciplines. Thankfully, nobody needs to be convinced of the importance of promoting the use of te reo, but think of all the practices that could be documented in this way, enriching our sense of how they occupied or continue to occupy their environment. They are not the worst thoughts to entertain, at this time of the year.


merc said...

Imagine if we could play old clay pots and plates like they were vinyl recordings, with a specially adapted needle, then we could hear the people and the streets from when the potter made the clay into form.
Brilliant post as ever Gio and yes you have converted me to Matariki, the time of Southern swells and offshores.

Giovanni said...

Did you go to any of the Auckland events? The programme looked very good this year. Wellingtonians have one last chance of attending Rangimoana Taylor's Star Lab for this year this Thursday. Book on the day at the museum.

Giovanni said...

Received via Facebook, a brilliant Sound Map of New Orleans.

merc said...

We may go see Kora
For me I like the planting, planning, remember whakapapa, Uenuku parts. I watch the sky very closely for surfing and am planning always based on such things.

Tom Ackroyd said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Ackroyd said...

Things I heard close-up to the motet speakers:

Before the performance -
Treble 1 "That bit at the end of page thirty-nine, it's really hard, isn't it?"
Treble 2 "I must just go the lavatory"

During the performance -
A tenor getting way too many notes wrong.

Standing back from any choral recital, individual errors smoosh out. You forget what ensemble singers can get away with.

Sarah said...

Righto! I am off on my bike into the city streets of Hamilton without my Ipod to just..listen.. (and not get hit)

Draw said...

Hi Giovanni thanks for the link to my site.
Also, excelent essay!

Giovanni said...

I regret not having made the link more explicit, so... check out Drawing Silence and Abstract Comics. Good stuff.

Draw said...

Thanks again for the nice comment.

Dougal said...

Thanks for this post Giovanni, I really enjoyed it. Some excellent links and prompts for thought too.

One of the things that was so stimulating - and so much fun - about this exhibition for me was also how it made you feel sound as something you were amongst, as opposed to it being something you observed (as in a soundscape).

I approached the exhibit knowing nothing about it (and, naturally, not having bothered to read the interpretive panels at the start) and so, for a few moments, couldn't be sure as I approached whether the sounds were from somewhere else in the city spreading through. It was hard too, once the performance ended, to mark just when it was the coughing and muttering and so on became loud enough to be marked as the choir's and not audience noise.

Giovanni said...

Thank you for noticing that, I made a special effort not to use the word "soundscape"!

I originally meant to talk in the post about those 'intermissions' in the motet that you and Tom have remarked upon. It's interesting that they were included, isn't it? They just made me feel so awkward, I had to step away. However they are an integral part of the work, contributing to that sense that the performance had been enhanced to the point where you experienced too much, an excess of it. People used to say that about the first CD's, didn't they? Because supposedly the level of sound detail was greater than what you would get in an auditorium.

Keri H said...

More people have died
-more people are dying
but the birds have come back
this year:
the stars are alight, our fires
dark smoke in the starlit air,
and I offer this fat, this smoke, this cheer
for a small tale,
a tell-tale tale
a richness of sizzle and spark and flare
a brightness a link in the dark
to natural noises in the natural listenable air-

Keri H said...

O, the last 3 lines got left out:

they are:


Giovanni said...

Oh! Thank you for that Keri.

Mrs Skin said...

"Wellingtonians have one last chance of attending Rangimoana Taylor's Star Lab for this year this Thursday."

Bugger, bugger, bugger.

Keep writing. I look forward to Tuesday mornings.

Anonymous said...

Whenever I hear a motor scooter going up Bowen Street in the late afternoon, I’m transported back to the Via Torino in Milan where I once stayed for a few days. I could see and hear the street traffic from my hotel window; so many people on motor scooters, including mums with their kids in behind. And I think of the friendly guys at the desk who wouldn’t give me my room key until I asked for it in Italian: “puo darmi la mia chiave, per favore, numero cinquecentocinque”. And I remember the crowd of young people who gather in the piazza in front of the Basilica di San Lorenzo on warm Thursday evenings, talking and laughing and making connections under the Roman pillars as hundreds of thousands have done before. And then I remember the political demonstration that passed by the hotel on its way from the Piazza del Duomo through to Corso di Porta Ticinese, a long parade of people singing and shouting slogans and waving red flags, and I followed it to see what it was about and found a poet at a leftwing bookstall who spoke English and explained it to me and suddenly the world seemed like a very small place. All that from the sound of a motor scooter on Bowen Street.

Giovanni said...

What a lovely comment! It made me a little teary/nostalgic to be honest.

I was recalling on this blog some time ago a much more prosaic but in some respects similar experience. I had been in New Zealand for about six months, and feeling quite homesick, when I came out of the old City Limits Café and had the most intense feeling of being back in Milan. I turned around just in time to see a truck that had just left the parking space next to me disappear into traffic. It's was the smell of the exhaust fumes that did it...

merc said...

For me smell is the utmost nostalgia trigger. Ah the smell of surfboard wax, tarmac, neoprine and sunblock.