gone to earth

Dan arc-en-terreMaybe a coincidence but during our Sharpen Your Needles event last night (28.09.17) Evan Parker played “Music for Mbale (Ndokpa)”, from The Photographs of Charles Duvelle: Disques Ocora and Collection Prophet, a sumptuous book and two CDs published by Sublime Frequencies. Recorded by Duvelle in Ngouli, Central African Republic, in 1962, the instrument played by two men for the Mbale village festival was a lingassio, a four key xylophone mounted over a pit.

Coincidence because of a social media discussion about the Ocora record called Musiques Dan, recorded in Côte d’Ivoire by Hugo Zemp in 1965 and 1967. Was there an example of an instrument using a hole in the ground for resonance? There are many extraordinary sounds and sound-making devices on that record – whirled slit aerophone, bullroarer, mirlitons, metal basin, the ground struck by big sticks, sieves filled with bronze jewellery, enamel basins filled with gravel, water drum, stone whistles – but maybe the strangest is Mask-that-eats-water, a pit dug into the earth and covered by bark. Fixed into the bark are vegetable fibres that are rubbed by two players. For reasons not entirely clear to me though perhaps explained by the ‘slip and stick’ theory whereby water affects dynamic and static friction at a very fast rate, water is poured onto the fibres by a third player, hence the name of the mask.

A photograph of a different earth instrument appears in Zemp’s book: Musique Dan: La musique dans la pensée et la vie sociale d’une societé africaine (1971). This one is equally ingenious but more elaborate, more conventional. In a chapter entitled Mythes d’origine des instruments de musique, Zemp gives what his informant tells him is the origin of the Arc-en-terre (my translation): “The bow in the ground belonged to an unfortunate, a little unfortunate. This boy had nothing with which to amuse himself; he could neither play the harp-lute, nor beat the drum, nor blow into the trumpet. Then he dug a hole in the ground, covered it with leaves, fixed a vegetal fibre there, and attached the other end to a branch which he buried in the ground. When he struck the rope, it spoke grrrrr grrrr. He says, It’s enough for me to amuse myself. This boy was an unhappy person. It is for this reason that the earthen bow remains with the children. It is not a thing to distract important people, it is for the unhappy.”

Dan Cithare d'ecorceOne lesson to be learned from this is not to jump to easy conclusions about earth instruments and primitivism. The Dan had other ways of amplifying sound, as the above photograph shows, but terra-technology floated somewhere out on the edges of society, either marginal, in the sense of being a diversion for the melancholy and immature, or spectral, as sound masks emitting the voice of a supernatural being. When I was beginning to research non-western music in the early 1970s unilinear cultural evolutionism was still prevalent. To find any subtlety in the literature you had to read ethnomusicologists like Klaus P. Wachsmann (father of improvising violinist Philipp Wachsmann). In my early twenties I was excited to read his chapter – The Primitive Musical Instruments – in Musical Instruments Through the Ages (edited by Anthony Baines, 1961). “While considering them,” he wrote, “it must be borne in mind that the effectiveness of a musical instrument can only be measured by the degree of satisfaction its sound gives to the people who use it.” He devotes a short section to what he called Ground Instruments: ground zithers, percussion beams, stamping pits, ground bows and, most fascinating of all: “In Abyssinia a narrow, tapering hole is made in the ground and howled into; the vernacular name of this instrument means ‘lion’s call’.”

The reference almost certainly came from French musicologist André Schaeffner’s Origine des Instruments de Musique (1936). In Art, ethnography and the life of objects (2007) Julia Kelly situates such ethnographic objects within the operations of circumstantial magic, as she puts it, “. . . at the boundary between the animate and the inanimate . . .” traversed by French surrealists in the late 1920s and early 1930s. She quotes Schaeffner’s argument, that ethnographers should study musical instruments falling outside recognised categories, for example “the most humble wooden box used to produce sound.” An extreme example from many points of view, not least museology, was a pit dug in the ground. “Schaeffner was also concerned with the least conservable of musical instruments,” Kelly writes, referring to an article on musical instruments from the Trocadéro’s ethnographic collections, “an Abyssinian ‘earth drum’ consisting of two holes in the ground of differing heights. This instrument could only be captured photographically, and indeed was virtually illegible in the dark photograph by [Marcel] Griaule published alongside the article, where only the player’s hands and arms gave any indication of its existence.”

Christian Wolff Pit Music cropThe allure of such an instrument, hole within a hole, absence within absence, Is out of all proportion to its simplicity. One contribution to the above mentioned social media thread came from Ilan Volkov, who drew my attention to Christian Wolff’s Pit Music (1971), published in Prose Collection. The piece could easily be a description of how to make your own version of the Dan earth bow, though that seems unlikely as both Zemp’s book and Wolff’s composition emerged in the same year. As Ilan pointed out, Wolff never intended his Pit to be actually made. Like a lot of things, post-Fluxus, it was an indication of potential (political as much as anything) rather than an imperative. I wrote similarly provisional pieces a few years later, the Wasp Flute that was never put into practice even though the instrument was built, and hypothetical events in which I performed with seals and fish, all of them suggestions of how life might be lived in a world less traumatised by what Timothy Morton has called The Severing (in his new book, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People).

Wasp Flute

from New/Rediscovered Musical Instruments (1974)

As Morton makes clear, discussions such as the one I am having now and have been having for nearly fifty years, became taboo, either because they were damned for cultural appropriation, primitivism and exoticism or dismissed for being hippyish, lacking in the detachment and rigour proper to a person who was considered to be permanantly Severed. But ultimately these holes in the ground address a basic problem – how to make a small thing bigger – and by applying the principle of resonance they fashion an elegant solution whose imprint will gradually soften and crumble into an impression rather than a scar. We could learn something from that.

 

 

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listening is intimacy

 Within listening is intimacy. The path to intimacy – with phenomena, other beings, objects, time, sensuality, the aliveness of things – lies through listening. A passing through. Seiji Morimoto, holding a rectangular metal box, slight movement, angled towards and away from light, chiaroscuro (as Caravaggio, as Georges de La Tour, as Robert Motherwell), tweaking controls; a small noise emerging, like pond weed in sunlight. Small moths flutter into the light of a table lamp, orbit fitfully, vanish. I thought of the tactical evasions used by moths when they detect the ultrasonic clicks of hunting bats: to emit their own high frquency clicks as a jamming mechanism, to fly erratically, to plummet to the ground as if dead. This is the most intense form of mutual listening, reciprocated clicks bouncing off bodies, clicks fired out into vacated space as one half of the partnership plays dead. Two heads, both strikingly classical in their own way, are in relation to each other; one dips close to the ground, the other is immobile, coaxing signals from a box. Later I remember Victor I. Stoichita’s account of a photograph taken by Gianfranco Gorgoni in 1974, of Andy Warhol and Giorgio De Chirico: “Though probably a snapshot, it nevertheless has the force of an oracle. It is the lighting that makes the photograph so dramatic, so much so that it is difficult to believe the snapshot has not been touched up. In any case, due to the unusual lighting, what could have remained a simple social record becomes an image of a transfer of power: through the freak pose, De Chirico passes his shadow world over to Warhol, together with an entreaty that he be its master (from A Short History of the Shadow, 1997). Trains scream, the hard exhaust of a motorbike passing through, distantly a cover version of Jorge Ben Jor’s “Mas Que Nada” and (again later) I think of Takuma Nakahira’s photographs, street scenes of sooty black, lamp black, blasted by flares and abysses of light. So there are snapshots, nothing else. (Cafe Oto Project Space, evening, 19 September 2017).
listening, the listener      listening and listening    stillness listening/movement listening   listening to listening to listening
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a distributed conglomerate instrument

Izusen 1While eating shojin ryori cuisine outdoors at Izusen, Daitokuji temple, Kyoto, in spring sunshine, April past, I reflected on François Jullien’s In Praise of Blandness, the appreciation of blandness or insipidity in ancient Chinese aesthetics and ritual practices. Commenting on a text describing the use of muted music during ritual offerings to the ancestors he says this: “For the most beautiful music – the music that affects us most profoundly – does not . . . consist of the fullest possible exploitation of all the different tones. The most intensive sound is not the most intense: by overwhelming our senses, by manifesting itself exclusively and fully as a sensual phenomenon, sound delivered to its fullest extent leaves us nothing to look forward to. Our very being thus finds itself filled to the brim. In contrast, the least fully rendered sounds are the most promising, in that they have not been fully expressed, externalized, by the instrument in question, whether zither string or voice.

Izusen 2

The seemingly endless succession of small dishes that form the experience of shojin ryori are not bland in the sense of being indistinguishable or boring. Each one has a particular character and subtlety of taste and texture but the cumulative effect is to balance rather than overwhelm the others. The look of them as diminutive sculpture is so striking and their taste so delicate that they leave what Jullien calls “the leftover tone, the ‘lingering’ or ‘leftover flavour’ (yiwei) [evoking] a potential, inexhaustible value . . .”

Izusen 3

But another important aspect of shojin ryori is its relationship to time. Green tea mochi, yuba, fried plum, cherry blossom rice cake, sesame tofu, tofu skin, bamboo shoot, tempura, soup with kombu, edible flowers and ferns, bamboo and perilla leaf all follow each other at a steady pace without overlapping. They are specific to a moment yet they constitute a meal. This is consistent with many of the gardens of Kyoto temples – Zuiho-in, Kohrin-in, Oubai-in, Daisen-in, Tofukuji temple, Ryogen-in and Taizo-in. Many of them reveal themselves gradually. A corner is turned; a path is taken; a threshold is crossed. At Ryōgen-in, a small enclosed stone garden called Kodatei lies under the eaves of the study. It has another name – A-un – which represents the inhalation and exhalation of breath, indivisible pairs, positive and negative current. The dimensions of the garden are tiny, its stones visibly linked yet separated (symbolically, at least, and within deep understanding the longer it is contemplated) by a vast body of water.

A-un lengthwise

In my early twenties I was drawn to a book called Animals Without Backbones, thinking that by studying invertebrates I could gain a greater understanding of the so-called formlessness of free improvisation. I was reminded of it, reading an account of “an unprecedented number of Atlantic portuguese man o’war” washing up on the Cornish coastline. Customarily thought of as jellyfish, portuguese men o’war are a species of siphonophore, a multitudinous colony of clone individuals with four specialised parts, all working together as a single organism. They go where the wind and ocean currents take them, often travelling in vast flotillas, which is why such sudden, mysterious ‘invasions’ become news.

A-un overhead view

At the Meakusma festival, Eupen, last weekend (8-10 September 2017), speaking and playing solo, I spent some hours on Sunday afternoon with Rie Nakajima and Pierre Berthet, chatting, watching them set up, then immersing myself in their installation performance. Elsewhere they have called these performances Dead Plants and Living Objects. Maybe that title was less applicable here. They set up on a hillside, objects dispersed in long grass and running down to the stream. Gusts of wind startled stretched wires and resonators into humming life. For a while I watched a large white balloon slowly deflate as it rocked gently in the breeze. Attached aerophones made no discernable sound but the scene was enlivened by flies landing on the balloon surface as if docking on a barren planet. They sought warmth but if the wind wobbled their puffy globe they would quickly vacate, then return a few seconds later.

Given their modest size, some sounding devices transmitted strongly from distance, a small part of their frequency range carrying up the hill. To walk close to them triggered curiosity, the pick-apart desire to know how they worked, but further away, where they were barely visible, a more open listening displaced this kind of focussed, analytical thinking.

The objects were scattered, half-hidden in the grass, in some cases barely visible (stretched string and wire); they could have come from a shed, a barn, the kitchen or a workshop for the manufacture of indeterminate projects. Without walls and with a cloudy sky as infinite ceiling, the dispersal and linkage of these elements felt more emphatically what I would call a distributed conglomerate instrument, close in its way to the shojin ryori aesthetic of eating, the sculpture of discrete but connected stone gardens or a drifting colony of intra-dependent entities. Muted would be a way to describe its effect; to become a part of it demanded unbeing, shedding all the blocking aspects of a fully operational human, letting go of faculties and ideas of boundedness, to enter into the world of flies as they alight on and take off from soft moving planets.

 

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and so it was the blues falling upon us

Paul Oliver books

and so it was the blues falling upon us . . . like a lot of other people, my head was burning and turning from the reality of an American president in 2017 unwilling after Charlottesville to fully distance himself from neo-Nazis, white supremacists, the KKK and other racists and so it was that I learned of Paul Oliver’s death. My copy of The Meaning of the Blues was close to hand and so it was I came to read Richard Wright’s forward, the conclusion of which said this: “The American environment which produced the blues is still with us, though we all labour to render it progressively smaller. The total elimination of that area might take longer than we now suspect, hence it is well that we examine the meaning of the blues while they are still falling upon us.” This was written in 1959, in Paris, for a soon-to-be architectural historian, English and art school trained, who had fallen in love with the blues and produced a book that was to contribute greatly to the scholarship and spread of a subject almost entirely outside his direct personal experience.

I was a teenager, maybe fifteen, when I read The Meaning of the Blues (in other editions titled Blues Fell This Morning). Oliver’s manuscript was finished in 1958, finally published in 1960 by which time he was on the road in America, recording interviews with an extraordinary range of blues singers, Speckled Red to Little Walter (recovering from a bullet wound), Mary Johnson to Sweet Emma Barrett. Oliver’s writing taught me how to think about music, make connections through to history, context and politics, particularly race politics; how to make some sense of an obscure lyric. In 1967, when I read Conversation With the Blues, the fruits of that field trip to a black America still enduring Jim Crow laws in the south, I began to develop an understanding of how to transcribe the cadence of vivid speech patterns, how to write about the relationship of music to its practitioners, their circumstances and the society of which they are a part.

Lightnin' Hopkins by Paul Oliver

Lightnin’ Hopkins at the Sputnik Bar, Houston (photo by Paul Oliver)

What I didn’t learn from him was how to write about the sound of the music. That seemed outside his purview, except for some isolated examples in Savannah Syncopators where intense encounters – “[in Ghana] . . . a chorus of women sings in chanting fashion, with one woman leading with vocal lines to which they respond, seemingly without relationship to the compelling rhythms of the adowa band . . .” – demanded description as evidence in a search for answers to questions about African retentions in the blues. How well his answers hold up after 37 years is for somebody else to decide but this approach inspired me when I wrote Rap Attack.

The exoticism of blues to a person like me, growing up in the suburban periphery of London in the 1950s and 60s, was one of the subjects I addressed in Exotica in 1999. After a trip to New York where I’d met Charles Keil, a fascinatingly perplexing track by J.B. Lenoir – “I Sing Um the Way I Feel” – had been on my mind. “Paul Oliver, one of the most eloquent of blues scholars,” I wrote, “had visited Lenoir in 1960, recording their conversation on a heavy EMI tape recorder that disintegrated when he journeyed south into the humid summer heat. Lenoir talked to him about dreams: the dreams of an old devil. ‘somethin’ with a bukka tail and the shape of a bull but he could talk’, that made his father quit singing the blues; a dream his mother had sent him, giving him numbers for the lottery; the musical inspiration that came to him, ‘like through a dream, as I be sittin’ down, or while I be sleepin’’.”

In 1984, Oliver prefaced the collected essays of Blues Off the Record with some cautious autobiographical notes that shed light on his obsession with the blues. As a teenager in 1942 he did ‘harvest camp’ in Suffolk, farm work taken on by teenagers to replace agricultural labourers called up for military service in World War II. Americans were building a base in Stoke-by-Clare, and Oliver’s friend Stan persuaded him to eavesdrop on a gang of black soldiers digging a trench. After a while most of the GIs were marched away, leaving two alone to finish the job. “We stayed behind the hedge,” Oliver wrote, “getting cold. I was getting impatient too, when suddenly the air seemed split by the most eerie sounds. The two men were singing, swooping, undulating, unintelligible words, and the back of my neck tingled. ‘They’re singing a blues,’ Stan hissed at me. It was the strangest, most compelling singing I’d ever heard . . .”

Oliver’s influence, though not his acuity and depth of knowledge, is plainly evident in the first review I ever wrote, 600 or so words about a Realm LP – Dirty House Blues by Lightnin’ Hopkins – published in a self-produced school magazine called ONE, circa 1965 or 66. Much of it was cribbed from the LP sleevenotes and where my own opinions surface they are embarrassingly naïve. I was searching for something, comparing “Everything Happens To Me” to James Brown’s version of “Why Does Everything Happen To Me” without knowing anything about the convoluted origins of that song (and I still don’t know much), also finding “affinities, strangely enough” between a Hopkins solo on “Long Way From Texas” to the “fast clusters of bent, cascading notes” played by Otis Rush, Magic Sam and Buddy Guy. Strangely enough I don’t hear those affinities quite so clearly now. What we hear is determined by what we search for.

Dogon ancestral shrine

Dogon ancestral shrine (photo Corrie Bevington)

Oliver’s main job lay in architecture, specifically vernacular architecture and the symbolic significance of shelter. In other words he was interested in structure and those symbols, rituals and beliefs that “identify, seek or invest meaning” (as he wrote in his introduction to Shelter, Sign & Symbol, published in 1975). This may be why (excepting the example above) he kept himself and his subjective responses to the sound of blues out of his music writing. But he was acutely conscious of the problematic aspects of a white man from Britain writing so extensively about African-American culture and was prescient in 1966, if somewhat mistaken, to think that the music’s future was bleak.

The circumstances of his death are unknown to me but presumably he was unaware of the weekend’s violence in Charlottesville and its continuing repercussions. If he had been able to follow these events, I imagine he would have felt profound sympathy with Black Lives Matter, since that was the motivational force that led him to write about African American life through its music, back in 1951 when he was exasperated by the attention given to jazz at the expense of gospel and blues. And knowing of a US president recklessly tweeting threats of fire and fury he might have dreamed himself back at the beginning of his book publishing career, to the violence unleashed upon Freedom Rides, and to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which threatened to kill us all. As Richard Wright said, this may take longer than we think, and so it was the blues falling upon us.

Paul Oliver MM 1970

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Acetylene snares

Science-and-Invention-MagazineGernsback1920-304

“Raygun gothic,” William Gibson called it in The Gernsback Continuum, his term for the ‘tomorrow that never was’ and still the most vivid description of a certain style of retro-futurist, space age classicism exemplified by Frank R. Paul’s 1920s artwork for futuristic magazines like Amazing Stories. In 1911 Paul illustrated Hugo Gernsback’s novel – Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 – a book whose enticing title is belied by its contents. “Ralph then attached the Telautograph to his Telephot while the girl did the same,” is a typical sentence, making it fair game for the stigma of being “surely the worst SF novel ever published” (according to writer Martin Gardner) though since most of us now spend a considerable slice of our time attaching Telautographs to our Telephots, this seems a little unfair.

Yesterday I was attaching bone conduction speakers to snare drum wire – twenty strands of quivering silver steel, like curling hair – resonating the whole set up with a drum bought in Chiang Mai and a bell bought in a Japanese shrine, the reason for the latter being its iron clapper, useful for magnetically attaching the tiny speaker within the bell’s inner cavity.boneconduction + snare

I tried playing old cassettes through this instrument-without-a-body: spirit medium séances of Malay indigenous people, a herd of wildebeests, trance dances of Laos hill tribes imitating the sounds of dog, monkey, goat, sheep and cat, and finally an interview I recorded with my grandfather and uncle in 1979. That gravitation toward a kind of spectral oral history of distorted voices – human/animal/spirit – makes sense to me; the bone conduction elements of this configuration was developed for me last year by David Bloor for an installation, The Body Event II, that played back my conversation with John Latham through objects (books and their pages, representations of books, a howler monkey skull, my late father’s oil can, as in a Vanitas painting), into the space where I recorded it shortly before his death.

BE overhead skull

Syd Senior, my mother’s stepfather, was short and feisty, given to playing the jew’s harp and telling risqué stories after a beer. A talented Sunday painter in watercolours, he worked in the print; when I was a child he walked me around the City of London, took me to see paintings, Hawksmoor churches, the inner sanctums of print works and courts, a Dickensian world. By 1979 the stuffing was knocked out of him. His ruminative, gravel tones reveal a way of speaking now almost extinct, the way a working class north Londoner would say “gorn”, “old whasname” and “most interesting”. “I remember when old Queen Victoria died,” he told me, voice dropping to a whisper. “By god, you daredn’t say anything. They were very patriotic in those days, you know, 1914, all that lark . . . it was a very high class kind of thing. If you was common you wasn’t wanted, know what I mean?”

Recently returned from Venezuela where I’d recorded Yanomami shamans, I needed work. There was a chance to do some paid research for Artist Placement Group, for what was known as the Reminiscence Aid Project, placed with the Department of Health and Social Security. Initiated by DHSS architect Mick Kemp, it was developed by an APG team that included Ian Breakwell, Bill Furlong and Hugh Davies; for their input alone it should occupy a significant place in any credible history of sound arts. Shut down in 1979 by the election of Thatcher’s government, which put an end to long-term research in the DHSS, the Reminiscence Aid project was an early practical experiment in what is now called ‘reminiscence work’, a therapeutic tool with internationally proven efficacy in the care of elderly people suffering from dementia, memory loss and other effects of old age. Among other things I tested the Reminiscence Aid Project slide show in care homes and researched smog, the killer pea-souper fogs that blanketed London until the Clean Air Act of 1956 enforced smokeless zones.

So we talked about smog, Grandad Syd, Uncle Bob and myself, Bob returning again and again to acetylene lighting, the way its gaseous glow from his bike lamp lit a path through smog as he cycled to work at the Belling-Lee factory every weekday, or the acetylene flares burning holes of visibility from within the toxic murk. Through a now irritating oversight I neglected to ask about listening in smog, how a person might use sound to find their way or how sound was affected by all those soot particulates and was the dirty air of smog different to fog in its acoustic aspect? Nineteenth century physicist John Tyndall investigated the behaviour of sound in fog and found counter-intuitive results. The Duke of Argyll lived close to shipyards in Greenock, on the Firth of Clyde. “Shipbuilding goes on there to a great extent,” he told Tyndall, “and the hammering of the caulkers and builders is a sound which I have been in the habit of hearing with every variety of distinctness, or of not hearing at all, according to the state of the atmosphere; and I have always observed on the days when the air was very clear, and every mast and spar was distinctly seen, hardly any sound was heard; whereas on thick and foggy days, sometimes so thick that nothing could be seen, every clink of every hammer was audible, and appeared sometimes close at hand.”

To hear the dead speak through objects, living on borrowed resonance, their voices thinned, abraded and hazed by host materials and the lack of a tangible body is uncanny. The radio of things, it might be called by a raygun gothic enthusiast. Bone conduction was pioneered by Hugo Gernsback, publisher of Modern Electrics, The Electrical Experimenter and Amazing Stories. Nicknamed Hugo the Rat for the way he cheated the science fiction writers published in his innovative magazines, Gernsback filed a patent in 1923 on what he called the Osophone, a hearing aid that transmitted sound vibrations to the osseous tissue of the body. Clearly he had a thing about sound, also inventing a helmet device called The Isolator in 1925, a self-contained, oxygen-fed, deep air diver equivalent of the soundproof rooms constructed by Victorian writers such as the anti-democratic, pro-slavery historian Thomas Carlyle. As an aspirational state, the definition of silence to men like Carlyle was misanthropic: world, shut up!

the-isolator

Where the Osophone was a legitimate ancestor to technologies like Google Glass, The Isolator seems more like a bizarre antecedent to John Lilly’s 1960s deprogramming experiments with flotation tanks and LSD. Implicit in all of this is a deeper theme: the tension between humans as isolated or social beings, connected or disconnected, cut off by atmospheric or neurological conditions, deafness or personal experimentation, in the dark or lit by flares, lost to history and death or given revenant vibration by attachment to matter.

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raw materials

ear ectoplasm

The late-19th century spiritualist and campaigner Louisa Lowe was unjustly, if legally, incarcerated because her husband claimed she was mad. Giving evidence against her, the proprietor of Brislington asylum – Dr Charles Henry Fox – had this to say: “She writes these revelations on leaves of trees, or any dirty scraps of paper she may casually find, and she liberally distributes them.” There is something immediately familiar about this image of visions and so-called ‘passive writing’ (automatic writing, we might say) inscribed on leaves; maybe we should all be imprisoned for similar madness. As in the cases of spiritually inspired artworks by Hilma af Klint, Georgiana Houghton and Emma Kunz, it raises serious questions about the gender bias of art history and the progenitive nature of a canon that disallows rule breaking anomalies, because they are of the wrong type, have the wrong motivations, come from the wrong place or simply lack a particular style of self-awareness deemed indispensible to modernism.

All this is easier (if not straightforward) to dispute when there are extraordinary artworks to contemplate. Louisa Lowe’s leaves and scraps are lost to an ineffable history of fragile and impermanent materials, along with those auditory manifestations of spiritualism that were so important to its efficacy as a spectacle of loss and empowerment. As scholars such as Alex Owen and Anne Braude have argued, spiritualism was a vital channel through which women, their voices otherwise suppressed, could ‘speak’ and establish agency, yet we have no documentation of what a séance sounded like, with its sonorous theatre of knockings and tappings, bells ringing and tambourines rustling in the dark, instruments played with no apparent human intervention and disembodied voices. According to Alex Owen in The Darkened Room, spirit writing would appear spontaneously on blank sheets of paper, “nobody actually witnessing its production but all able to hear the movement of pen on paper.”

Georgiana Houghton Glory Be To God

Georgiana Houghton, Glory Be To God, 5th July 1864

Spiritualism – hearing and transmitting messages from an invisible, largely unknowable spirit world – was a listening practice with a radical proposal: that the field of listening extends beyond what Karen Barad calls (in Meeting the Universe Halfway) “. . . a container model of space and a Euclidean geometric imaginary.” In my experience this sensation of moving through extended listening fields is fairly common during improvised music performance. At Hundred Years Gallery last September, a Sunday afternoon quartet of Douglas Benford, Sylvia Hallett, Billy Steiger and myself, I was experimenting with bone conduction speakers, attaching them to small objects – a rusty cowbell, a small metal container for gramophone needles bought in Porto Alegre, books that have some significance in my long struggle to better understand listening and resonance – in order to amplify voices and archival musics to a level of ghostliness that matched their place in memory.

set up Iklectik 2016

During a duo with Sylvia Hallett in the first half, she and I became aware of unidentifiable sounds, like another music, that was growing from within our soundfield but appearing to come from elsewhere. Neither of us found this surprising. Sylvia often uses a microphone and looping to sample and reconfigure real time playing; I was playing field recordings, interviews with subjects like Ornette Coleman and a cassette tape of Chinese religious processional music that I had copied in the early 1970s from BBC Sound Archive recordings, through my osophonic set-up. The potential for ambiguity was considerable, made more so when I learned that Sylvia’s microphone wasn’t in use. This was mystifying, though not particularly abnormal.

In the break, Douglas picked up a phone message to say that his father had been taken ill, though things were not so bad that he should leave immediately. In the second half I played a duo with Billy Steiger. At one point Billy went upstairs into the café. In the basement we could hear his footsteps crossing the ceiling, stomping around, hear his violin faintly, as if from another world. Back downstairs his violin was picked up and distorted by one of my vibration speakers, placed on a small tambourine on the floor to amplify the sound but suddenly acting as a receiver. All of these crossings between instruments, sources, materials, histories and places made it somehow irrelevant to maintain any identification with a sound or its point of origin. In the final quartet I felt the impulse to hold a bone conduction speaker to my skull. The music playing through the speaker came through clearly to me, like an inner voice, though I was aware that nobody else in the room could hear it. Differences between inside/outside, here/there, then/now seemed, not exactly to melt away, but to open up tiny glimpses into a radically changed sense of the world.

100 Years Gallery Calum Storrie

Calum Storrie, Hundred Years Gallery, 18 September 2016

Later that evening, Douglas sent an email. “Sounds like we were playing when my dad passed away at home,” he wrote. “It was very sudden and painless they think . . . to be honest he went the way he would have wanted.” The following day he sent links to a recording of the music, along with drawings of our various groupings by Calum Storrie, each one made in a continuous line, the drawing instrument not leaving the page until the end of the line. I felt a compulsion to write about this event; so many thoughts and emotions rising out of it. As I wrote to Douglas at the time, seeking his permission: “It’s a gig we will all remember because of the circumstances . . . It’s a question of what recordings can’t absorb or retain, in this case a major life event that escapes the microphone entirely and yet the music sounds more dramatic, less ghostly than it did in the room, so perhaps our memory of the event is somehow imprinted despite the technical impossibility.”

As it transpired I was unable to write, maybe because so many other implications were crowding out this more prosaic theme of recording and its limitations. Even now, the raw materials refuse to coalesce, swirling around each other like one of Georgiana Houghton’s spirit drawings.

 

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the sweat of toads

“I was in search of something – a small detail which I remembered with special intensity as part of my vision.”

George Eliot: The Lifted Veil (1859)

 

The man whispers in Spanish as he pisses, sniffs, sighs, washes his hands, all sounds of the higher frequency. He is breathing in reverberance. He goes. Upstairs in Malba, the Buenos Aires Museum of Latin American Art, Victor Grippo’s Vida-Muerte-Resurrection, ten lead vessels – cylinders, square and rectangular boxes, cones – face each others as if the beginnings of a western frontier town set in the future. Beans moistened with drops of water spill out from this sombre architecture, their germination wreaking havoc among grey sobriety.

The alchemy and hermetic symbolism of materials is central to Grippo’s work, a radio drawing electrical energy from a potato, his writing – An Observation ‘In Vitro’: “It lived in the intestine of a toad. It was carefully extracted with a pipette and placed more carefully still on a glass slide, isolated, solitary and mobile in a drop of water. The refringent cilia . . .” and so on. “For Grippo,” wrote Guy Brett, “it is an article of faith that instruments of work and works of art have a common starting point . . . the irony of an inchoate lump of unstable matter forming a ‘homage to constructors’ could be read as an acid comment on the perversion of construction and order by fascist regimes.”

Writing on Lotto’s Toilet of Venus in Pissing Figures 1280-2014, Jean-Claude Lebensztejn surmised that “Lotto seems to have been keenly interested in alchemy, where urine plays an important role, and in the illustration of hermetic symbols, of which the wooden covers in the basilica’s choir provide so many stupefying examples.” C. G. Jung’s understanding was that base materials such as urine were instruments of a kind of folly. In Alchemical Studies he favoured examples of commentators ridiculing the “frivolous triflers”, the literalists who worked with urine, salts, metals, the sweat of toads. His sympathies lay with those who passed beyond the torturing of arcane materials into a contemplative symbolism of the psyche, in which lead, for example, was “identical with the subjective state of depression.”

This dismissal of materials, to rid the world of objects in favour of pure spirit, is a denial. I watch keenly for the way in which materials and objects are tortured in the pursuit of that illusion of pure spirit we call music. Tania Chen at Café Oto on the 15th June drinks coffee to keep jetlag at bay, creates feedback with small walkie-talkies, plays back voicemail messages both private and banal, shows brief video clips from her travels: rooms, corridors, aircraft interiors in which flight attendants wrestle with food trolleys. The corridors have a disquieting aspect, if only because there is a weight of cinematic evidence proving that corridors are dangerous places.

She speaks about her dog Lychee, allowed in the cabin of the plane because Lychee offers emotional support in a world that has the potential to be grey as lead. The set up is like a living room, a table and chair, an open laptop, an awkward passage back and forth between table and piano. Tania moves to the piano, leans into it, her body sinister in the way it hovers over the keyboard, seducing it into softness before suddenly shooting out quick, stabbing motions of immense force, shocks that unlock the violence latent within every piano. Without drama she speaks, phrases plucked out of life’s banalities, poignant emails about family, friends and forgotten birthdays, the sacrifices of certain choices and what must be forsaken to make something this fragmented, raw, intense and compelling. Lychee the companion dog has sad eyes, we might say, knowing nothing of a dog’s sadness. “Soft and fluffy,” she says, repeating, “soft and fluffy.” But the mood is as sticky as the sharp rasp of Sellotape pulled from a roll as if ripping the dressing off an open wound. There is nothing slick here. We see all the video clips laid out as a thumbnail world of atomized moments and locations, observe the uncertain process of searching, choosing which one, see the dislocation of time, the disconnections from earthing and familiarity, the fracturing of emotional ties, represented by these disparate materials as they acknowledge travel itself as a material (just another complex of refringent cilia that form the so-called ‘instrument’, it could be said) with which a musician works, torturing the materials while lifting a veil on life-death-resurrection.

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