BFI London Film Festival 2018

Fifteen (Quince) is one of three projects (the others being Isha and Naptha) that I’ve been recently involved in playing at this year’s festival. Shot by director / cinematographer Peiman Zekavat, the film unfolds as one continuous 10-minute take. This kind of choreographed camera work lends itself well to a soundscape that changes in direct relation to time and space. See Pascal Aubier’s film here for further ideas in this direction, referenced in Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time.

Photochemical Soundmaking: Optical Soundtrack Tests

My past experience was not to "meddle" with the material, but use my concentration as a guide to what might transpire. I mentioned this to Stockhausen once when he had asked me what my secret was. "I don't push the sounds around." Stockhausen mulled this over, and asked: "Not even a little bit?" [M. Feldman, 'Crippled Symmetry', 1981]

Post-production sound work I think is a business of pushing sounds around in the context of moving image. The pushing often has to happen at speed to meet the demands of shrinking budgets and shifting schedules. For this we have available to us a vast range of commercial sound libraries from which sound files are taken and placed on the timeline. Is there time, or any reason, for one to stop and consider these sounds beyond their pure utility? The physical place of a sound in the world, its inner sonic properties, its potential sacredness?

 James Holcombe's Auricon 100 camera, amp and chunky mic.

James Holcombe's Auricon 100 camera, amp and chunky mic.

Time slows down when the technology stubbornly refuses to keep up. Through these unfamiliar temporal gaps emerges new creative possibilities, new perceptions and meanings. This is how I felt recently when attending an immersive 1-day introductory workshop on 16mm optical sound with filmmaker and artist James Holcombe who I first met at no.w.here in late 2017.

Over the last few years I’ve been developing an interest in 16mm film and have wanted to learn more about the recording, manipulation and playing back of optical sound. Aside from the actual creative possibilities as an audiovisual medium, photochemical filmmaking strikes me as an incredibly ‘deep’ artistic practice involving patient skill, direct engagement with technology, chance, high value risk-taking (money and time), and a generous spirit of shared knowledge and resources through its community. While I can also identify these attributes in the digital realm, what particularly attracts me to this way of working is the difference in how one engages and interacts with the material over time.

 Hanging out to dry before projector test.

Hanging out to dry before projector test.

The embodied, tactile process of photochemical filmmaking involves a radically different perspective on how one engages with the material in time and space. An experience, a way of encountering the world, that feels far removed from the digital environment I regularly operate in as a sound designer. The efficient, precise and total control of the computer is replaced by a sense of experimentation (in the truest sense of the word) and adventure, through an interplay of human skill, technology and chance.

Before me a magical process of energy transference unfolded: acoustic energy into optical, kinetic, chemical and back again to re-produce an audible sound signal. It felt like all aspects of the audio chain - recording, developing, editing, treating and playback - were suddenly resonating with a renewed sense of meaning and mystery. In moments like these our private feelings of awe and wonder are stirred as we rediscover the magic inside phenomena we think we are familiar with.

Special thanks to James Holcombe

Masses and Parts [2018] - the end of a chapter

Inspired by the dense textural work of Penderecki, Ligeti, and the American minimalist tradition, Masses and Parts is a collection of sound pieces that mark the end of a long period of experimentation in computer-based music stretching back to 2002. These ideas were first explored in ealier work for shamisen and computer [2005-2010], and then later through the Otoplexus project [2009-2011] and Systema Naturae [2012-2017]. Other sketches and ideas can be heard in the Signal and Noise playlist. A work-in-progress text here attempts to outline some of the thoughts and ideas surrounding this body of work.

My favoutite piece of this four-part collection is Emerging Lines from Just Intervals which uses a just intonated tuning system for melodic and harmonic exploration. This is inspired by and dedicated to two greats of the American experimental tradition: Pauline Oliveros [1932-2016] and Glenn Branca [1948-2018].

Systema Naturae [2017]

The year ends with the completion of my final collection of electronic music - Systema Naturae - comprising of tracks from the past few years since returning to the UK. The three-part eponymous piece builds on ideas drawn from the Otoplexus project that was originally conceived in Tokyo around 2011-2012. Lynch Suite emerges out of time at film school while the final track The Enframing is a nod to my continuing interest in the writings of Martin Heidegger.

This collection is dedicated to two giants of electronic sound: Iannis Xenakis & Bernard Parmengiani.

The Bergman Suite [2017]

Trädgårdsgatan, was the epitome of security and magic: the numerous clocks measuring the time, the sunlight wandering across the infinte green of the carpets, the fires fragrant in the tiled stoves, the chimney pipe roaring and the little stove-doors tinkling. Down in the street, a sleigh with its jingling bells sometimes passed, the cathedral bells rang for divine service or a fuuneral and, morning and evening, the delicate and distant Gunilla bell could be heard. [The Magic Latern, p.19]

2018 marks what would have been Ingmar Bergman's 100th Birthday. The Bergman Suite is a tribute to the great director. An insight into his life and work through sound. More information here.

The Grid

"We see the grid in all sorts of guises. In the map of the city, in the facade of a skyscraper, the grid of the printed page, in the grid of an abstract painting..." [BBC Radio 3 documentary: Grid]

The timeline is a great grid. An anti-natural, rational device structuring what we see and hear across time.

  Friendship  [1963], Agnes Martin

Friendship [1963], Agnes Martin

The grid: a particular system for organising sound into musical expression:

Some thoughts on sound, world and understanding

"Any understanding has its being in an act of understanding" (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, p.118-19)

Alan Lamb is a sound artist and scientist who for the past 30-years has been exploring the vibrating properties of long telegraph wires. I recently acquired a copy of his Primal Image release from 1995 that captures the beautifully evolving textures of long wires in Australia. His engagement with the physical world seems to me to nourish a fascination for the mystery of sound in nature, that invigorates his scientific and artistic activities with purpose and meaning. This spirit clearly comes across in this excerpt from a 2016 BBC Radio 4 documentary with sound recordist Christ Watson:

Primal Image is a stunning set of recordings that documents only a small portion of Lamb's ongoing sonic explorations. Aside from the sheer beauty of the listening experience, what greatly interests me with Lamb is how he encounters the world through sound. How the world is disclosed through his engagement with it in his particular practice.

Jerry Thompson worked as Walker Evans' principal assistant from 1973 to Evans' death in 1975. In 2016 he released a small book called Why Photography Matters. The following few extracts are striking in that they are applicable to sound and sound recording technology:

"Fox Talbot, and the cohort including Evans and Cartier-Bresson seven decades later, proposed a new kind of epistemology, a new, hitherto impossible way of learning about the world [...] The opposite of Mathema (a model projected to enable understanding), Pathema is an experience passively received: acquiescence to what is seen [...] When a pathema holds sway, the artist will no longer be Master of the Universe. He or she will be instead an attentive observer, a willing participant in, perhaps a servant of, a system larger than that artist's individual, personal, particular needs." (Jerry L. Thompson, Why Photography Matters, p.14-15)

Thompson goes on to speak about how photography is "at its best" when the inner world of the artist and the outer world of the material environment exists in balance, cooperating as in a dialectic: "one side presents a proposition, the other counters in a similar fashion, and on and on as a progressively refined result appears, something neither partner in the dialectic could have produced alone" (p.19).

 Alan Lamb - involved in the world through sound, cooperating in a dialectic.

Alan Lamb - involved in the world through sound, cooperating in a dialectic.

Sound is an expression of space, of the physical world we are thrown into. It remains, as Lamb's work demonstrates, an expression of mystery and reverence for all that surrounds us. Bringing together Thompson's description of photography and Lamb's deep sound activities, we remind ourselves of the kind of meaning and value in work that emerges through our engagement with and in the world. A world not only made from nature, but one populated by people and all their social and creative affairs.

Often physically isolated from others in our expanding global village it's easy to neglect the importance of our worldly engagements. While convenience makes economic sense, it can at the same time weaken the sacrifice and so diminish the meaning. Consider recorded sound as one example: Commercial sound libraries provide sound editors access to a vast array of high quality recordings from around the world. Together with computer software, these sounds can be selected, edited and arranged to create a working soundtrack, quickly. In our anxious haste, we demote sound to the status of mere fodder. Reduced to pure utility, all preciousness is gone. All worldly engagement removed and understanding denied. This couldn't be further from the deep practices of Alan Lamb.

As practitioners of sound, passionate about all its forms and modes of sonic and musical expression, we would do well to listen to what Lamb's work teaches us about the world and the potential for our involved engagement in it. If nothing else, a trip outside every once in a while is always a good thing.

Further information about Alan Lamb: http://www.abc.net.au/arts/adlib/stories/s873159.htm

Signal and Noise #68: Chanting at Horinji

Further listening on the Signal and Noise playlist...Buddhist chanting recorded at Nichigai Suzan Horinji Temple, a Japanese temple located in the city of Sarnath just outside Varanasi, India.

This is an excerpt from an hour-long evening ritual performed each day at the temple. Chanting is heard accompanied by temple block, gong and uchiwa-daiko drums; a kind of handheld fan-drum commonly used in temple ceremonies belonging to the Nichiren branch of Mahayana Buddhism in Japan.

The Sound of Crowds and Power

In the early 1990s British guitarist and improvisor Derek Bailey presented a television documentary on the role of improvisation in music. During the series Bailey visits a church on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland where we hear the unusual tradition of Gaelic psalm-singing. This kind of swarming choral effect reminds me of the singing documented on the 1989 album Polyphonies Vocales des Aborigenes de Taiwan. Other references might be Louis Sarno's recordings of the Bayaka People of the Central African Republic as well as Alan Lomax's extensive recordings of prison and work-song in America.

Inspired by these kind of choral textures The Ecstatic Lament for Jerusalem [2017] is a plunderphonic reworking of the famous hymn Jerusalem, which is sung at the Proms every year in the Royal Albert Hall. Using realtime sampling, melodic intervals are stretched, re-ordered and repeated to create an ever increasing rapture of sound and emotion.

Incoming [2017] by Richard Mosse

Utilising thermographic imaging technology from distances of up to 30km away, documentary photographer Richard Mosse together with composer Ben Frost and cinematographer Trevor Tweeten has created an awe-inspiring audiovisual experience of surreal beauty and fearless humility.

  Installation view of Incoming by Richard Mosse. Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Installation view of Incoming by Richard Mosse. Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Daily reports, digital information feeds and up-to-the-minute news bulletins can have the effect of normalising our individual and collective responses to human tragedy. Through the use of multi-channel video and sound projection Mosse re-renders such ubiquitous imagery in a new aura of strangeness. This I think re-frames the plight of refugees across the world, invigorating it with fresh meaning and insight. An inspiring piece of documentary work currently showing at The Barbican, London.

 

Signal and Noise: Clock

The Signal and Noise playlist continues into 2017. At #52 we have a recording of a 19th Century clock made by the Spanish clockmaker José Rodríguez Losada.

Photography: Credit of The Foundling Museum, London (c) • Special thanks to Alison Duke for providing me with this information.

The Act of Listening #18: Listening for the enemy

Always listening for the enemy: Heinz Hoenig as Maat the sonar operator in the 1981 war epic Das Boot.

"It is on official record that a certain ship belonging to one of our great allies chased a sperm whale for - I forget how many miles. The chase was by hydrophone, aural, and did not become visual until many miles had been run, when the hydrophone experts were reluctantly compelled to admit that their legs had been pulled, or at any rate their ears tweaked. They state the fact that the sperm whale faithfully reproduced the sound of a U-boat running on electric motors throughout the entire chase." [Hush; or The Hydrophone Service, 1920 by H.W. Wilson]