29 October 2008

The sound artist as shaman…
building bridges and opening inner doors
No one travels

along this way but I,
this autumn evening.

– haiku by Matsuo Basho
(Japan, 17th century)

There seem to be more artists dipping into the well of ambient / electro-acoustic music with each passing day. The more cynical listener might suppose than anyone and everyone with access to a laptop and audio shaping programs is getting into the act – and while it might be true that the wider availability of such hardware and software is causing a proliferation of sound artists, as is the case with all forms of expression, there’s a lot more to it than that. Slapping together bits of processed recorded sound – from whatever sources – still needs to have imagination, creativity and skill at its core in order to be artistically effective. If the genre doesn’t appeal to the listener, of course, it’s all going to sound like noise anyway…but for one who can appreciate the intent, structure and craftsmanship that go into such endeavors, the results can be more than simply rewarding or entertaining – when everything comes together in the right way, such projects can induce a psychological / physical shift in the listener that is absolutely shamanistic in its power to transport.

Shamanism can of course have religious / spiritual overtones, depending on the existing beliefs of the person on the ‘receiving end’ of such activity. For some time now, I’ve become aware of some parallels between this sort of shamanism and the practice of some forms of psychology / psychotherapy. Both the traditional practices and the more modern ones seem, at least to my view, to open the mind of the person under ‘treatment’ to knowledge or thought processes which are inaccessible or at least subsurface in normal thought activity. In tribal applications, this ‘mind-opening’ can offer up what seem to be communications with or visions of people or events that are physically out of reach. In psychological settings, the therapist can utilize various methods to make the subconscious of the client more available to conscious thought, thus giving the opportunity to see issues or problems in a different light or from a different aspect. The concept of employing psychological triggers to open the subconscious mind, revealing the sources of traumas that have adversely affected the psyche, allows the individual to better understand those traumas and to deal with them and the effects they have had on their life. It’s a tool for healing, for furthering understanding.

Music and other forms of art can have just such an effect on the listener or viewer – subtle aspects of the work can open psychological doors, allowing the recipient to experience altered / augmented understanding of seemingly unrelated subjects. The trigger could be a snippet of melody, a combination of sounds or colours, a fragment of lyrics or poetry, or any of a number of elements or combinations. Sound artists who utilize recordings of environmental ambience in their work, altering them to varying degrees (or sometimes not at all) can combine sonic ingredients that have the power to affect listeners even more than more conventional components, such as literary content, that act in a more direct way on the consciousness.

Each individual who experiences such works will, naturally, be affected in different ways and with varied intensity – and some will not be affected at all beyond finding the creation interesting or entertaining on a purely aesthetic level. One might feel touched by a piece of sound art (or music), or by a work of visual art, or by a film, and not immediately understand why it has affected them so deeply – if time is devoted to further reflection, especially with repeated exposure to the work, it might become more clear.

Some of the works below are made up almost entirely of sounds from nature, or from other environments – some of them contain elements that are more ‘musical’ mixed into the material. These are not recordings for cruising around in the car – the subtleties they employ are too delicate to be thoroughly appreciated or felt in such an atmosphere filled with distractions. All of this is not to imply that having these playing in the background – even as you sleep, for example – is inappropriate, only that they merit deeper listening as well.

John Kannenberg
Autumn ensō
Autumn enso
Why Not, 2005

The ensō, basically a circle, is a symbol from Zen philosophy and calligraphy, used to invoke thoughts and images of enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe, and the void (description from Wikipedia). After viewing an art exhibition of works featuring the image, Kannenberg was inspired to create an ensō made up of autumn leaves arranged in a circle on the head of a snare drum. It wasn’t much of a leap for this sound artist to take his idea from a visual concept to an audio piece – and the results are pretty stunning in their combination of simplicity and depth. He has since released a DVD – he terms it a videopainting – to further the ideas presented in the sound version, including a live performance of the piece.

Asher / Jason Kahn
and/OAR, 2008

A collaborative work, the environmental recordings that form the basis of Vista were made by Asher in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood – sounds heard on a pre-dawn walk through the streets and alleys, including generators and other mechanical sounds, idling motors, &c were then digitally processed and sent along to Jason Kahn in Switzerland. Kahn made his own recordings, also in the pre-dawn hours, walking around Lake Zürich, which were then sent to Asher, who processed these using the same methods he had employed with his own recordings. Kahn forwarded further recordings of the wind in the Swiss Alps, unprocessed, and the two artists then worked together on the final mix. The finished recording has an almost physical sense of space to it – one can practically hear the distance between the source of the sounds and the receptive organ (ear / microphone), giving the project a heightened feeling of reality despite the obvious alteration and manipulation of source sounds.

Loren Chasse
The footpath
The footpath
Naturestrip, 2008

Loren Chasse / MNortham
The otolith
The odolith
Helen Scarsdale, 2008

Both of these releases are based on field recordings – but instead of the more ‘passing’ sounds used by some of the artists above, Chasse literally gets ‘down in the dirt’ (or whatever element he finds) for a more ‘in your ears’ effect on The footpath. He has been described as using a microphone for an ear placed directly onto the ground – the sounds of footsteps (appropriate especially given the title) on gravel, clods of earth being crushed, rocks grating together, vibrations from unknown sources transmitted through the ground, all things available are brought into the mix and treated. Some sounds are recognizable, others remain a mystery – but it all fits together beautifully, creating a vivid sonic image. The otolith (named after part of the inner ear that transmits information on the angular attitude of the head to the brain, allowing it to perceive and implement balance, a very a propos reference) adds musical instruments – albeit unconventional ones, such as magnetic table harp and bowed wires – to the mix, while The footpath seems to have its source in ‘grittier’ sounds. Both recordings are stunning and very effective.

Loren Chasse official website

MNortham official website

And finally, the pièce de résistance – one of my ‘great discoveries’ this year…

Tetuzi Akiyama / Masahiko Okura / Toshiya Tsunoda
Manfred Werder : 2006[1]
skiti, 2006

This recording is simply amazing – and more than anything I’ve heard in recent memory, it has the ability to transport me to another place / time every time I experience it. I was blown away by the effect it had on me the first time I listened to it, and I continue to be stunned to find that it happens again and again. It’s a short piece, composed by Werder and performed by a trio of respected Japanese improvisers (Tetuzi Akiyama [guitar, stones], Masahiko Okuro [alto sax] and Toshiya Tsunoda [tambura]), recorded outdoors by a riverside outside Tokyo. I was expecting something completely different when I read the credits – what I got instead is an album of incredible beauty, on which the musicians never touch their instruments, much like John Cage's famous 1952 piece 4'33. Being recorded in an outdoor setting, in a garden or park, one can lose oneself in the sounds of the world around, and as a result become more deeply aware of how sounds surround and envelope us – passers-by talking, crows in the sky, footsteps on the path, children playing (perhaps 50 yards away – another recording with a very real sense of distance and space), trains passing nearby, the wind, &c. Manfred Werder, who composed the piece, states in the notes to the CD release: ‘The world is sounding infinitely. There isn’t any silence without sounds. There isn’t any sound without silence. It’s not about exploring new sounds, but exploring a new relation to what the world sounds – as we actually are part of the world as the very phenomenon itself. What could a new relation to what the world sounds bring forth? In my work I try to describe a general situation where we are a part of it might already be the whole of the world…the fact that it sounds.’ He further describes the piece itself through a seeming subtitle, much as any ‘traditional’ composer might add information to a score in order to help the performing musicians better understand his intentions, ‘A place, natural light, where the performer, the performers like to be. A time. Sounds.’

I’ve wondered a great deal since acquiring this disc why it affects me so much. Is it the sounds of the children playing at a distance that remind me of some unspecific time in my childhood? Could it be the natural environmental sounds, so unadulterated and clearly reproduced, that bring to mind a completely stress-free place and time? The answers to these questions and others might come with repeated plays, with the passage of time – and then again, they might not. In the meantime, I find myself returning to this disc again and again, sometimes playing it repeatedly for a couple of hours at a time (it’s only a bit over 28 minutes in length). I’ve found from experience that, despite its overall low volume level, it’s not something I can play while I sleep – it’s far too personally involving for that sort of listening. It’s too rewarding on too many levels to relegate to the realm of slumber.

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