subtropics

One advantage of going to festivals is the opportunity to get to know what artists are doing in much fuller dimensions than is possible otherwise. The subtropics festival provided ample opportunity to learn about the visiting artists, in panels, the SOUND exhibit at the Bass Museum, informal conversation between events, and of course the concerts themselves. In many cases, I felt like I was beginning to get a sense not only of what they were doing, but of what impelled or even compelled them to do it. As I wrestle with questions and ideas about my own artistic purpose and trajectory, these opportunities are like gold to me. What I found in common among the artists I met was the determination to pursue an idea wherever it leads, however simple or daunting it might seem at the outset.

David Dunn did an enormous amount of research in order to learn how to sonically construct the circumstance of a bark beetle infestation of a tree. (The result is The Sound of Light in Trees: Bark Beetles and the Acoustic Ecology of Pinyon Pines.) His work, he says, is dominated by the pursuit of questions, an “ambidextrous dance between art and science.” Within the panel session, he explained the relevance of the piece he was about to perform that evening to the ongoing bark beetle research. The two identical boxes of circuits are set in relation to each other–“They perturb each other, and I perturb them.” The third party irritation of the circuits is parallel to the effort to find a way to disrupt the positive feedback loop of the bark beetles as they infest and kill pinion pines. There was a great moment when Russell Frehling asked, so when you irritate them, can you do it in different ways, like tickling or poking them? We all laughed and David said yes, it’s very much the case. The sounding result of this interaction was incredibly surprising and compelling. As I understand it, these systems were set up very simply, but their interaction produces wild results. It’s indescribable. I am hoping there will be some sort of recording available of this or another performance of this interaction. The sounds would be fascinating on their own, but to know that they are produced as part of an ongoing scientific question deepens their interest for me.

Brenda Hutchinson‘s interest, as she puts it, is in the everyday–how we live–paying attention. To this end, she has been engaged in a number of “collaborations with strangers.” She is perpetually asking the question, how do you get people to stop? How do you get people to be willing to be vulnerable? When that happens, she says, “something miraculous happens that you can hear.” She lives out that willingness to be vulnerable, in doing things that she is uncomfortable doing, which actually include talking to strangers–a huge part of her “daily bell” and “bell project.” (To clarify, these are two separate projects, and when she was asked what her favorite sound was, she said it’s definitely not a bell.) Another activity she says she is uncomfortable with is performing, especially solo performing, which is exactly what she did, very effectively, on Saturday night. She vocalizes into a long tube, which processes and distorts sounds in fascinating ways. I got a copy of her CD of performances on the tube, and listened to it on a bus ride yesterday. There is so much mystery and dimension to the sound–it’s hard to know what is getting through of the original vocal sounds, and what sounds are impacted by the tube. That is part of what I find most effective about these performances–the release of control.

Alison Knowles has been doing extensive work with beans and paper as sounding objects. She talked about working with a paper maker friend in New Hampshire, who would prepare the pulp in a blender and tell her the exact moment that the beans were to be thrown at it. Alison had to be the one to throw the beans, because her friend was (aesthetically?) incapable of letting them be placed by chance. She felt the need to place the beans, and as Alison said, looking at the paper, “you could just tell that they had been put there.” After hearing her speak about the process of making them, I especially enjoyed trying out the gloves. The bean turner (also made of flax paper and filled with beans) was wonderful to use too, and made a tremendous amount of noise. I tried turning it very very slowly, to get at some of the subtlety of the sounds. The guard came up and said most people turned it very fast, and it was nice to hear what happened when it was played more quietly.

I became very interested in Russell Frehling’s approach to place–only using sounding materials from the place of an installation or performance. He had an installation at the SOUND exhibit that I missed my chance to see–it was too loud to really take it in during the opening, and the computer was down when I went back. His approach is based on the idea, as he puts it, that sounds occupy physical patterns and you can feel them. His work takes on a sculptural quality. Steve Peters is also fundamentally interested in sound as it relates to place. For the freight elevator piece at the Bass Museum, he had someone record 70 minutes of “silence” in that elevator. He gave a copy of the recording to Rene Barge and kept one himself, and they each processed it in their own ways. The two recordings were looped at different intervals and played back in the elevator. I got in the elevator, and out of habit pushed the button to go to the second floor. Of course that is where the whole SOUND exhibit was going on, and I had a hard time telling what was the sound from the exhibit and what was specifically this piece. So I took the elevator down to the first floor again, waited for the door to close, and sat down again on the bench that was provided in the middle of the elevator. None of the sounds I had suspected were from outside the elevator seemed to have lessened at all. I felt very at home in the confusion of wondering what sounds were from where. The recorded “silence” itself must have included noises from outside the elevator, too. The sudden and unexpected bursts of activity within this context reminded me of my experience of Lucier’s Music on a Long Thin Wire. I also loved thinking about the superimposition of a particular section of the past (those 70 minutes) in this space with the then-present of my sitting in there.

Phill Niblock spoke more about the video footage he shot in Peru of people making things, than about the vast accumulations of sound that were played with them. When asked about the relationship between the footage and the music, he said there is no relationship, and left it at that. I’m not willing to leave it there.The side-by-side panels of seemingly endless footage combined in the memory to create an impression similar to the more vertical accumulations of sound materials, which were derived from Seth Josel’s playing. (The piece was called Sethwork.) In both sonic and visual terms, the process was one of accumulation. The work is immersive, and demands to be taken in on a grand scale in order for the resonances to make their impact. As the sounds built, I felt them throughout my body and felt completely in that experience. The footage made me feel all the more rooted in the sound, which is possibly what made me determined to establish a relationship between the two.

I had been in touch with Gustavo Matamoros, the artistic director of both iSAW and the subtropics festival, some time before I went down to Miami for the festival, and I had some idea of his warmth, his focused commitment to experimental work, and his calm in the face of mounting a festival of this scope. The community forum that he moderated provided an excellent chance to hear about the efforts that iSAW has made to reach out to the Miami community, and was resonant for me in terms of my interest in making experimental music more readily available to interested audiences. I was also very glad for an opportunity to hear some of Gustavo’s music, including the piece in the SOUND exhibit in which sounds were projected onto specific points of a table. There was an understated and compelling piece called Stone Guitars with Spin Whistle, that is now available on The Stroke That Kills. The strings of the four electric guitars were excited with a rocking motion by smooth stones, moving upwards in frequency along with a recording of a TIG welder. Gustavo’s text piece, Williams Tells of Rights, involved activating a snare drum with a rolled R on the word (or syllable) “right,” placed in a continual stream of verbal contexts. I loved the process of first figuring out what was going on, then thinking I got it, then hearing how it transformed both in my perception and in the almost literary form of the piece. On a musical level, I started hearing the snare drum “rolls”–if I can call them that–as a sort of intermittent melody, changing pitch according to the voicing of the word “right” in the context of each phrase.

I was very glad to begin to get to know these artists, and to learn more about their work. There is a general-purpose idea that a work of art should speak for itself. Maybe it should. But it always means much more to me when I have an idea of the kind of force, or determination, or conception, or fascination that was involved in bringing it into being. In many cases, it takes on a whole other dimension and I start hearing it as part of both the composer’s experience and my own.


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