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.