Monday, April 7, 2008

compositional terms

Each new batch of sound pieces tends to concentrate around a group of terms, ideas or concepts, without necessarily abandoning previous ideas. Since December, I have been making new recordings, pieces, sketches and sounds for various functions (dance score, installation, CD). While still working with ideas of "flocking", tumbling" and "awkwardness" which were the main focus of Flock & Tumble (see below for elaboration), I have been identifying some new concerns:

Velocity - The concept of "sound-objects" (Shaeffer's term for discrete sonic occurences) never made sense to me when I was involved primarily in creating "strata" of sound. Recently I've been collecting separate (rather than continuous) strikes, scrapes, thuds, bangs, pings, whips, gongs, drops, clatters, clinks, cries, rumbles... These occurrences form themselves into chains (sometimes with some help). The attack and decay of each event can be manipulated. The speed, power and physicality of attack and decay build velocity. While the composition moves at an overall pace, velocity works through individual sound objects. Velocity indicates force, aggression and physicality - occurring as an object which has weight and implied materiality.

Material Index
- the term derives from Michael Chion's analysis of film sound, and refers to the way in which material density and substance is inscribed into recorded audio, and the way that sound might either correspond with or contradict visual information. Tati's footsteps are an example, in the way different, often very unrealistic foley effects determine a character's presence. The use of ping-pong balls for footsteps creates a hollow, springy character, often without our conscious awareness. This indexical and sensual aspect of sonic material has always interested me, and in the use of simple materials for sound production (metal, wood, glass, etc.) I have realized the degree to which we are able to decode and imagine the tactility of those materials through their resulting sonic character. The "woodness" of sound from wooden objects (for example) is intrinsic and almost impossible to obliterate.

The character of sound matter is imbedded deeply in my work despite modifications and alterations (pitch manipulation, reversing, layering, editing, etc.). In my opinion, this creates a primary complication to the idea of "reduced listening" through using acoustic sources. However obscured or hybrid, something of the initial material is retained. The ear is finely attuned to the qualities of weight, density, rough and smooth - sensations to which sound experiences are connected in daily experience. My own interests include the full range of mutation, hybridity, obscurity, confusion and recognition, while avoiding illustration or description.

Sounds are always (as has often been stated) sounds within a space - which carries its own material index. Mediation (the imprint of media on the spectral or textural character of a sound) provides another aspect of material index which can be manipulated. The particular and unique combination of matter, media and space for every recorded sound is what makes Shaeffer's goal of a complete solfege of sound impossible (though it shouldn't preclude attempts at precise description).

White noise and artifacts - I previously identified this as a component of "awkwardness" and I've been lately listening to clicks, pops, distortions, traffic sounds, far-away voices, tape-hiss, etc with increasing pleasure, as an integrated component of the sounds. I don't want the process to be invisible.

- As I construct flocks of sounds, I work with them at a specific distance in representational space, imprinted by the material index of real acoustic spaces. I work with the ear's movement between different depths, and the dynamic of sounds which move or interact among and between different depths. Thinking of these flocks as points of activity at various distances, producing a complicated mobile - never static.

Tangentiality - A compositional strategy of decentered elaboration. Mutating and disturbing individual sonic elements, allowing a piece to follow multiple possibilities with a limited range of sources, shifting them in space, density, depth, interaction, etc. Shifting views of sonic clusters to reveal a variety of perspectives.

May 22, 2007

Flock & Tumble - a definition of terms.

The composition of Flock & Tumble combined the intensely detailed and the haphazard. This methodology meant being open to chance while paying attention to the "purpose" or necessity of every sound at every moment. Recording and manipulation of sounds involved strategies for random behavior, including:
- recording in noisy environments which contain traffic, rain, wind, people, dogs, radios, etc.,
- a lack of monitoring between overlapping layers,
- improvisatory recording sessions,
- providing participants with only schematic scores (such as indicating pitches as "high, medium low"),
- and the blind layering of individual sources.
In response to this randomness I chose to where and how to emphasize and elaborate, moving into microsecond editing. For example, I created many "hybrid" events by precisely matching/masking multiple envelopes into unified new sounds.

As I worked over the last 6 months, I developed terminology which refers to various structural techniques or methods. Two of these terms became the title, in which I take the ideas as a compositional spur. By "flocks" I refer to sound-events which occur at irregular intervals in varying densities, forming clusters. This is a behavior which occurs on the level of individual layers, each distinct source or element within a composition. It is a form of continuity which links sound objects (discrete sonic events) into strands of intermittent occurences .

Whereas "flocking" is horizontal, "tumbling" is vertical, a relationship between two or more strands in which a sound triggers one or more further sound-events. "Tumble" is the perceptual grouping of sequential sounds into a causal relationship. It could be seen as a "meta-flocking" across layers of the music. These structures come about both intentionally and unintentionally, often arising through accidental correspondences which are then emphasized purposefully.

While the concepts of "flock" and "tumble" are largely specific to this series of pieces, another idea has enveloped my approach to composition in general for the past few years. "Awkwardness", used positively, is a vague and difficult term, more a quality than a thing. It comes in part from pushing against my own comfort levels in the creation of music. It relates to the degree to which I can remain surprised at my own work. It is a sense of unfamiliarity shading into rejections of "the rules". It is also an undefinable "feeling" in the music, a subjective pleasure which may be brought about, in part, from things such as:
- sounds that are too brief or loud in relation to their context,
- recordings that are distorted, warped or noisy,
- backgrounds or environments for recordings which are filled with low-level noise,
- long pauses,
- and sounds which are too "human"/"animal"/"organic"/"artificial" in relation to their context, at times creating a contrast between natural and artificial.
Awkwardness may also linger atmospherically from the use of real acoustic spaces, echoes and reverberations, and especially the confused layering of multiple reverberant signatures.
Awkwardness could be opposed to a cool, refined or machine-like texture, though it should ultimately be elegantly awkward and intentionally accidental.
Awkwardness leans toward an incorporation of humor, oddness and drama, but without specific referent.
It is a floating term, attaching itself on various levels of the work.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


Recently visited the Mill End Store with Diana Lang and purchased fabric for Flock & Tumble dancers Woolly Mammoth Comes to Dinner and Linda Austin. A perfect environment for appreciating the details of materials. No piped-in music, natural light and blissed-out quiet. Woolly will be clothed in raw muslin, with shimmery frills, in colors as seen above.

Meditations in the midst of fabric bolts followed some strange tangents. I'm interested in the infinite specifics of various materials. In this case cotton, linen (my favorite), lycra, polyester, silk, bamboo, hemp, nylon, etc. Each has the possibility to seduce with their individual colors, textures, reflectivity, softness, stiffness... not to mention the rituals of folding, cutting, labeling and displaying. There's a concentration to places which are dedicated to materials, a specialized focus which I find attractive - Kremer Pigments is another of these. Or the paper drawers of well-stocked art-supply shops. Or certain old-fashioned lumber yards. Or maybe the light bulb lady on Mississippi (though her shop is a bit cluttered to feel calm). These places contradict the modern desire for convenience and all-inclusive availability. I hope we don't lose them.

There's also the relationship to materials which is implicit in each of these examples, a relationship which builds through use. It's the information held in hands and muscles - a tactile knowledge. A true craftsperson refines this connection though a preference for certain qualities based on predictability and intimacy. I feel like a voyeur to such practices, as I never fully belong to any. Like attending a religious service, I can observe, appreciate and enjoy but never fully belong... Perhaps this is due to my interest in observing meta-patterns, applying comparative models, and breaking down divisions between categories, genres, etc. I've always been a bit mystified by those who dedicate themselves entirely to one thing - Zen buddhism, experimental music, ethnomusicology, oil painting (while of course understanding that there is more than a lifetime of depth in any of these). Applying these thoughts to Flock & Tumble, I wonder how to describe and promote this merging of music, dance, video and performance which will (hopefully) contradict all of these categories.

Yesterday I finished the mastering of Flock & Tumble (the CD which shares only the title, forthcoming on Sonoris) with Timothy Stollenwerk. Now it sounds delicate and brutal at the same time.