Broken Compass – Áttaviltur Etudes

Direct translation would be brotin áttaviti; but in short, a clever translation could be àttaviltur – átta is like direction – base word before grammar changes it in use in a sentence is átt, but also means to own something. You own – þú átt. Viltur is to get lost, but it also means to be wild.

A broken compass can get you lost, but when you get lost you can find something.

And I think it could make you go back to the wild

 

– Tanya Pollock

 

Dust Veil Sketch# 2

Part of a work in progress, very rough around the edges, but I might as well share it as I usually put these sketches up privately on Youtube for me to refer to and the section where I explore my female sexuality around 2/3rds in won’t be in the final piece so it’s kind of an easter egg.

 

Sound goes out of sync towards the end as i was editing on a bus  but it’s not meant to be a finished or polished piece and this gives a better stereo image from the Zoom recorder.

 

Essay – White Noise: Silence in an Echo Chamber

White Noise:

Silence in an 

Echo Chamber

Apolitical Sound

And 

Crucial Gesture

 

Annabel Strange,

Aberdeen,2018

 

Introduction 

 

I don’t think that artists can stand around and 

scratch their nuts while people are being shot by police.”

– Harold Budd

In an age of political unrest, mass communication, and the democratisation of the means of production, is it sufficient for a largely white male artist base to merely explore in front of a largely white male audience?

Is it problematic to be political within sonic arts, or is it comfortable to share privilege from a place of privilege and not seek greater parity through social change at the risk of losing that impotent hegemony?

To start at the beginning of my own journey into identity crisis of whether I call myself a sonic artist, or a performance artist working with sound, I go back almost precisely a decade to studying sonic arts at the University of Hull under Dr. Jo Anderson. Until this point, I had not yet considered electroacoustic music to be , politically, in any way removed from what, say, Sonic Youth were creating – the same potential for affecting social change – arguably the preserve of what I have always considered to be the work of the true artist not wishing to bury their head too much in the sand of craftsmanship – albeit with cleaner and less crass methods than, for example, the high octane digital hardcore punk of Atari Teenage Riot; Kim Gordon and the boys’ club had a more abstract methodology which attracted both those seeking entertainment and those seeking social change – in much the same way as Frank Zappa could release a sharp relief on the corruption of mass media sandwiched between a crass sonic effigy to sexual foreplay and a treatise on the benefits of capitalism – sonic artists and musicians had potential agency for the political.

There we were in the immaculate ambisonic studio. I posed the question of logistics: “How would you generally move sound around in that environment, would you automate it, or turn a knob?” 

Dr. Anderson may have been joking as to the extent of his answer; and whilst he is a studious man not without a dry sense of humour, his subsequent words stuck with me: “I would automate it, turning a knob would be far too rock and roll”.

For the first time, I recognised that histrionics might not always have a place in what we might call art toward craft art (in my understanding) being a form of self expression with the potency to start or end war, dividing opinion and affecting social change, for better or worse; and craft conversely being the act of doing it well, creating a quality output of the creative concept. Since the rise of modernism, and postmodernism, we cannot, for example consider a well crafted still life at no remove and through no political lens to be art when it is merely craft.

In the same moment as I recognised the potential for histrionics to be counterproductive to the craft and thus limit the potency and reach of the art, I simultaneously recognised the form over content, craft over art mindset of electroacoustic music, the cold, apolitical stasis of diffusion concerts, and the residual formalist attitudes carried over from classical music composition and concert tradition to the current state of electroacoustic music.

What Pythagoras found for increasing clarity by reducing distraction with the acousmatic curtain, it seems the sedentary onanism of white male hegemony on electroacoustic music further propagates the idea that we, the performers, remain unseen to promote reduced listening “shifting listening attention intentionally, from the contextual to the inherent features of sound” and further away from any feeling we might otherwise connect between the sound and kinaesthetic empathy which would otherwise be possible with more respect for the existence of the performer in a performance. This is not to say that acousmatic diffusion is disrespectful in contrast with performance per se; however, when the technique is applied without consideration or without proper execution, the results are muddied – any hand gesture, choice of walking pace, or costume must be neutralised entirely or otherwise considered for how they may affect reception of an otherwise acousmatic work.

However much the patriarchy supports the acousmatic veil, if the veil is merely a concept more than the existence of a physical veil, a barrier between sound and instigator, we fall into the confusing no man’s land of the remaining need to slap him on the back for a job well done – the hinterland twix pressing play and the posture, outfit, and extraneous gesture of the sound diffusor – which draws greater attention to the accidental, extraneous, or potentially in this climate, thoughtless gesture arising from an otherwise exclusively sonic event; amplified by the absence in practice of the theory of the curtain.

Given that man would rather forego the inconvenience of an actual acousmatic veil over the lazy simplicity of an assumed veil being sufficient, it could be argued that it will always be problematic when electroacoustic performances are given insufficient consideration to the political weight of dress choice, of the gender and ethnicity of the performer (or diffusion artist), of the contextual value of the weight of every gesture, pause, movement, or stutter; and to ignore such coloratura of context of the who, what, or why of the agency in action in the name of reduced listening is unrealistic and risks being complicit with the patriarchal dominance of the straight white man over the world of nuance that exists outside that bubble in the reality of sound in practise. Potentially.

This formalist reliance on the pretence of presuming the veil can be particularly problematic in that it can be argued to support and utilise the means of production for creating a state of white male dominance in global politics by using the same climate of assuming all to opt in and subscribe to these toxic ideologies.

If there is any truth in the art versus craft debate, to consider ourselves artists is to subscribe to the ideology that outside of direct political action through literal lobbying and democracy, it is we, the artists, who must use our position as thought provokers (in the privileged position of social mobility where we need not engage in blue collar work) to work towards a society of inclusion, respect, and harmony; or, inversely, to be complicit with the lack of this through inaction, by conversely using our privilege as that same imaginary veil to pretend that the current political climate is sufficient because it supports our need for and use of such a veil.

The veil is imaginary. It is time to leave the stasis of the mixing desk, to pick up the tools the same imaginary veil has hidden from us. To brush off the rust and explore greater worlds of understanding and change as opposed to the post truth rationalisation of formalist explorations which can only encourage political stasis through blindly ignoring the political climate outside the soundproofed studio door.

 

 

 

White Noise: Silence in an Echo Chamber

 

You haven’t the imagination to understand anything outside your own experience.

 I’ve heard your music. It’s nothing. It’s empty.”

– The Shout

 

Harrison talks pointedly of space and focusses on the acousmatic in diffusion concerts but says little of where the body lies in the reality of live ‘performance’; yet the body does not exist acousmatically – in performance art, all choices matter with regard to where and how much of the space is used and by what resources, and whilst he makes valid points on the place and provenance of the acousmatic, we cannot escape from the changes brought about by who hits the play button, who controls the faders, by what agency or lens is that action initiated?

Harrison notes the abstraction from sound source to sound form, the alienation from provenance : 

In its most basic form, ‘acousmatic’ is an adjective which can be applied to music in which the source or cause of the sound is not seen. (…) A more elaborate definition is required which specifically does not depend on a listener’s understanding of the source or cause of the sounds heard as originating directly in ‘musical’ performance, (…) the attempted attribution of the sounds heard to some kind of source or cause; this occurs spontaneously in the listener’s mind and is characteristic of human response.” 

Whilst we can separate the source in the studio and morph the spectrum into something unrecognisable and removed from the original lens, prism, context, or agency by which it was created, within the formalist convention of the concert in the tradition from which it emerged and continues to rest, there is still the potential for a God complex of the creator, the culture of the false idol, which means the sound does not rest acousmatically on its own in the absence of an actual curtain, an acousmatic veil in practice, by which the spontaneity of human response in the act of listening remains unpolluted. 

The act of diffusion is irrevocably linked with this musical tradition of respect for the virtuoso performer; and the agency to conduct diffusion concerts comes from a place of economic agency. This residual mentality of veneration of the performer carries over to diffusion and must be assessed accordingly: 

“If done well, what is added through this process is a co-musical activity that supports and significantly expands the listening and performance experience. (…) sound diffusion concerts emerged as an interest and trend within the United States—primarily by those centres that are aware of diffusion practice abroad and that have the financial support to access the necessary equipment.”

This reality of the differences introduced by visibility of the Wizard behind the curtain whilst relying on the subscription to imaginary conceptual fabrics could be argued to propagate the validity of white male privilege and the ability for those of privilege to reduce the lens to assumptions – to make apolitical art in a vacuum that believes everything is satisfactory from their place of privilege.

The ignorance to the value of gesture, pace, dress, gaze and prism in the pretence of the acousmatic, relative ambivalence to the structures and tradition of performance, and the irrelevance of congratulating the invisible man in acousmatic diffusion of electroacoustic fixed media works is problematic; symbolic of a wider problem of the male dominance in classical and electroacoustic music traditions and the subsequent subjugation of the more valid voice of those with political sensibilities outside of the bubble, the vacuum, the echo chamber of the predominantly white male composer diffusing works to the predominantly white male audience.

So many diffusion practitioners believe they can simply suspend the disbelief of the audience by proxy and not have to consider the effect their dress or gesture has on the audience’s reception of the work and this could be perceived to arise from a place of apolitical white male privilege.

The historic examples given time and again are heavily in favour of the primary privilege model of white men with scant political purpose or drive for social change in race, gender, or economic parity – Varese, Schaeffer & Henry, Wishart, Harrison, Emerson, Chion – not to qualitatively criticise their oeuvre so much as the aggregate of their dominance and the impact even friendly hegemony has over those excluded – are the examples by which we are taught in sonic arts.

As discussed in the Sound of Others panel on women in sonic arts, if there are fewer examples for women seeing other women creating with sound, they are at a disadvantage compared to the ‘sound man’ prevalent in the patriarchal simplicity with which the white man picks up his tools; this follows for other models of disparity such as racial or economic differences outside of the echo chamber.

As again discussed by Jazz Harbord of (Hull women musicians collective) Make Noise, women need to be able to have the same freedom to make mistakes without being belittled for their appearance or over looked after by their male peers taking them under their Svengali wings. 

The Musician’s Union recognised there are insufficient examples to encourage women to take up electronic music as a means of expression; and funded taster courses at the Rise Up Quines festival in Aberdeen.

As problematic as it is that terms such as ‘sound man’ are still used to linguistically reinforce the relative absence of the female in the sound field, the ‘silence in the echo chamber’ exists in the space where white male privilege dominates from a comfortably apolitical standpoint and slovenly chucks his muck at the dartboard that similarly exists within the prevailingly white male audience.

The expression ‘white noise’ may seem a facile pejorative; yet the reality of white noise is all pitches at once, all the switches flung high and no care for composition – though filtering can cause pleasing results. This is an apposite metaphor for the resulting political gestalt of the white male  heteronormative position of privilege applied to the tape – a largely thoughtless and lean apolitical void which perpetuates its own elitism by the relative absence of attempts to redress the balance.

Does an artist need to use words to convey emotional depth, or support political themes?

Does the white male need to support those he can perhaps not sufficiently witness from behind his ironed and starched acousmatic curtain?

The absence of white male privilege can tend towards greater political results as recognised during discussion with a colleague, speaking from the position of white male privilege but conscious of the wider discourse as a professional sonic artist: 

I would say that in my experience there are some additional issues beyond the obvious elements of misogyny that still occur in the arts. When it comes, for example, to sound cultures despite the fact that the entire actual history is largely female driven, the written and academic history (inc. lectures, papers etc) does not represent that & instead is usually propagated with the same few male artist references. In terms of the content / material of the work I do think its fair to say, for a variety of reasons, that, speaking generally of course, female artists have always tended to draw on a wider range of themes and material in their work whereas males often get sidetracked by a particular obsession with the technology and perceived technical ‘skill’, or draw on a particular, text book set of influences.

It could be argued that electroacoustic music, in its craft over art mindset, risks being almost the antithesis of a political stance. 

It could therefore follow that the agency for social change implied by arts over craft is reduced by this entrenched propagation of formalist and elitist classical traditions.

Furthermore, the apolitical silence in the echo chamber of white male composers exhibiting apolitical explorations to white male audiences suggests that the classical pretences, traditions, and resultant oppression of minorities further propagated by electroacoustic composers by inaction should give them pause to consider the validity of their position as artists as opposed to craftsmen through their complacent misuse of privilege in the absence of using that position of power towards the potency for change; as such absence may make them complicit with traditions that support their hegemony and oppress other voices.

 

 

Apolitical Sound & Crucial Gesture

 

The pressing of a button or manipulation of a computer mouse is a much less visually perceptible movement within the context of a conventional audience/performer spatial relationship than is the lifting of the pianist’s arms after a concluding fortissimo chord. In this sense, perceptible corporeal engagement with the music is seen to be a physically expressive way of communicating and extending musical ideas.”

– Imogene Newland

 

 

The potentially absent consciousness of the role of dress, gesture, demeanour, or action in sonic art performance or electroacoustic music concerts too often feels to arise not so much from a position of choice and total composition focus as a privileged comfortability in knowing the audience will make the leap of faith in subscribing to the concept of the increasingly necessary acousmatic veil that means these things need not be considered – necessary, in the sense that the composer or diffuser may lack sufficient awareness of how corporeal facets can inadvertently subvert the meaning and ‘purity through reduced listening’ of a sonic work.

With visual perception counting towards the whole in “corporeal engagement (…) extending musical ideas“, could it not be argued that the musical idea may be diminished by the compositional choice of writing for a medium that removes the visual, performative aspect, when the weight of the visual is insufficiently considered or acted upon in practice? 

Too often, the reality in practice is that the acousmatic veil is less a compositional choice towards sonic purism, more the absence of consideration for the performative aspect and political potency therein; when the artist (or craftsman) comes from a formalist apolitical position of privilege and would prefer to actively shy away from visibility, yet lacks the ability to sufficiently do so when the reality of present visual cues and corporeal ephemera in practice have more impact on audience reception of sonic work than the composer may have intended or sufficiently accounted for.

With sonic arts in academia tending more toward the association with music departments than art departments, we run the risk of leaning further toward formalist craftsmanship than the potential for social change found in true arts as conceptually introduced in the previous section.

With music as a fine art being so long the preserve of the aristocracy, and aside from creating saccharine tarts for the bloated bees propagating the values of the monarchy or supporting the political standpoints of the 1% as opposed to the values of the majority of the populous by blindly superimposing the stiff values of societal elitism on to sonic arts by viewing them too much in a classical music context, we decrease the creative voice of the masses by proxy in propagating the traditional, safe, buttoned down apolitical void.

According to the Cultural History of Gesture:

From the thirteenth century onwards the rules of etiquette changed continually. After originating among the highest nobility the new codes would diffuse themselves: first, among the middle classes from the sixteenth century onwards; then among the lower classes from the nineteenth century onwards. In the course of this process the essential activities of life became more and more stylized or were even pushed back from the ‘stage’ (public life) ‘into the wings’.”

Given the politics of music performance during this time, up to the later political developments of jazz and blues as a reaction to slavery and political oppression, the reduction in potency for a political voice through musique concrète and later electroacoustic music by continued alliance with dogmatic traditional values in classical music in academia is further supported by the aristocratic refinement (read: suppression) of physical gesture in society; as, to bring social reprieve on deviations from an increasingly oppressive doctrine of agreeability maintains political control of the masses – and where better to disseminate this ideological state apparatus than the concert hall?

Reading further on the history of gesture:

The insights and explanations set forth in these books constitute an early, though already highly accomplished, example of the study of ‘non-verbal communication’. Thus many of the treatises deal at length with phenomena such as gestures, facial expression, or even ‘paralingual phenomena’ (the pitch or intensity of the voice, etc.). Attention to such details, so readers were told, was a prerequisite for the ‘science of conversing agreeably’ – one ‘faux pas’, one ‘gaffe’, was enough to break a man’s career. 

The white man in sonic arts propagating his dogma transferred from this academic reliance on the traditions of the concert hall has so dulled his other senses as to be less aware of the impact of fluctuations in nuance of his movements and utterances unplanned for in not being processed exclusively via the auditory cortex.

Admittedly, the sonic artist generally preaches to the choir in the sense that these concerts tend towards small and predominantly male audiences, with the audience tending towards academia in sound, or music. Nevertheless, the existence within the bubble does not justify the existence of the bubble and existence within a vacuum is devoid of oxygen or outside influence. 

The silence in the echo chamber.

It could be argued that the academic elitism is sufficient to suppress other audiences, voices, and prisms; which the white man, in his bubble, would prefer to keep away, lest he have to continually explain his lack of prism.

Montero finds: 

…almost invariably, that those who have seriously engaged in physical activities – for example, dance, sports, or yoga – are sympathetic to the idea that there is something that it is like to feel another person’s movement when watching him or her move, whereas those who have a more sedentary lifestyle tend to be less sympathetic to the idea.

The sedentary echo chamber is self limiting. To tune the ears is a skill and a profession; to do so at the disadvantage of the other senses is to further decrease the political lens our works could otherwise benefit from; and to pretend visual cues do not have bearing on reception and cognition is disingenuous in the act of true composition, of setting a lens within a frame within a stage, as Montero continues.

Perhaps a significant percentage of the population lacks this experience, but just as the perception of color would be a genuine perception even if most of us were color blind, this makes the perception we are concerned with no less genuine.”

This does not imply audiences will be affected by every corporeal gesture in a sonic artist, be it performative flourish or accidentals, but to not consider the potential impact of our gestures is to assume the world to be colourblind to their effects and to assume so much of an audience betrays a woeful disrespect for each unique prism their work must navigate.

As Merleau-Ponty states: 

It is through my body that I understand other people, just as it is through my body that I perceive ‘things’. The meaning of a gesture thus ‘understood’ is not behind it, it is intermingled with the structure of the world outlined by the gesture, and which I take up on my own account. It is arrayed all over the gesture itself“;

Apply this to soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan’s Ligeti and the recipient fully perceives the gestalt of what it is to know a work. The full respect of not merely the ‘operatic flourish’ but the utter theatrics of consideration for the feel, look, gesture, and motivation for every motion create a sincerity of moment not found in the stasis of fixed media and though comparison is unfair in such polar opposites of art forms or practicality for delivery, the contrast of this example is apparent. 

Hannigan feels she has developed an intuition for the emotional nodal point of music and knows how to manipulate this switch in the audience:

With most pieces I can get inside fairly quickly and find the key. It’s partly due to having done it for 25 years, but even when I was young, I loved it. That was the game I wanted to play – to get past the technical demands and go right into the dramatic aspects because that’s what carries to the audience. It’s the core of the piece that we want to hear, the expression of the composer’s soul.”

Again, this approach to creative work and interpretation is a sharp contrast to the comparatively pedestrian sedentary exploration of electroacoustic music, but the respect for finding a profound interpretation is quite possibly the greatest absence in the formalism of the derriere garde of privileged electroacoustic stasis. 

The air pressure changes, but little else. 

Although Hannigan’s oeuvre and electroacoustic music cannot be compared, this sharp relief highlights the struggle electroacoustic artists may find themselves in when balancing their position in musical progression against the classical tradition they still find themselves entrenched in when considering too much the form over the content of their composition or ‘performance’.

This physicality,” notes Olson-Coons, “this corporeal engagement with her art, is part of what makes a Barbara Hannigan performance so remarkable. In a German newspaper, one reviewer used the word Vollkörpereinsatz, which one could perhaps translate as “full-bodied commitment. (…) She embodies contemporary music—both in the sense that she lives by avant-garde values, and in the sense that she fully gives herself to every performance. Few performers incarnate such diversity and range, and those that do will us to forget the separation between art and life, performer and character, mimesis and possession.”

To a purist reduced listening perspective, this level of depth could be seen as superfluous; yet the active consideration of every gesture and the place of that gesture within the space is the least an artist can do to respect the unspoken pact between themselves and their audience. 

To subvert such respect without adequate consideration for the impact this inherently has on audience cognition is again symptomatic of the prevalence of white male privilege in electroacoustic composition – the man assumes control of the visual, with or without factual reasoning for doing so.

Any work originating from such an assumption begs the question:

Where is the expression of the composer’s soul?

Is this the magic of the arts or the emptiness of sophistry?

 

 

Conclusions

 

Nono, who finds the social situation intolerable, wants art to change it. John Cage, who finds art intolerable, wants the social situation to change it. Both are trying to bridge the gulf, the distance between the two“.

– Morton Feldman

 

Even with the democratisation of the means of production with more libraries, colleges, and community centres having available resources for music production and communication of the output, through increased availability of cheaper computers and open source software for example, sonic artists often come from a privileged background. They have sufficient access to the means of production to hone their craft in a complicated digital realm of hardware, software, and end product space.

There still lies a position of power even by having regulated electricity supply and the time and space away from physical work to create.

In a political sphere of readily available information, it is almost impossible to escape the news, the political wrongdoings of others, and our ability to take action against injustice.

If we are not using our tools – our sound equipment, space to explore, electricity to charge our batteries – to affect social change, are we not complicit with the oppressors?

If we see our sonic arts practice as merely an exploration from a place of privilege which often barely scrapes the barrel of the aesthetically pleasing, let alone contributing to the field of sonic arts, then why do we do it? How can we justify our complacency?

The apolitical and the potential for ambivalence toward the impact of gesture, lens, and agency in electroacoustic diffusion and elsewhere in sonic arts is emblematic of the classical concert tradition paradigm the sonic arts so comfortably sit in through their place of privilege. To not recognise this privilege is to simultaneously be complicit with the political climate whilst muddying the intention of composition by not recognising the traditions and ambivalence that follow from such formalist traditions.

Even as Manning closes his treatise on electronic music stating: 

“The Concert Hall has proved a major source of disappointment for many composers of taped works, for tradition has cultivated an expectation of live action as part of any public performance. Experience has shown that the vista of a platform empty except for an arrangement of loudspeakers does not encourage a heightened concentration on the aural dimension unless considerable thought has been given to the diffusion of the material as part of the compositional process”;

so Growtowski highlights that the performer-audience pact is different for each form of performance:

“The elimination of the stage-auditorium dichotomy is not the important thing – that simply creates a bare laboratory situation, an appropriate area for investigation. The essential concern is finding the proper spectator-actor relationship for each type of performance and embodying the decision in physical arrangements”.

Perhaps it could be seen as not the work of the acousmatic diffusion practitioner – the reduced performer in a body conscious Schaeferean reduced listening discourse – to concern themselves with the weight and value of their physical gestures, as Growtowski potentially shows them an escape hatch in recognising the performer-audience pact as being fluid; yet with electroacoustic music composition still relying heavily on the classical composition tradition from which it arose when technology liberated the sound as something to be composed with back in the days of Schaeffer & Henry et al, so follows that audience expectation of the connection between the body and the art work still follows from those traditions as Manning continues: 

“Without a visual aspect the projection of sound has to be handled with special care and any material shortcomings in this respect have will only serve to heighten any feelings of detachment or alienation. The social aspects of concert-going are firmly rooted, and habits of a lifetime are hard to change”

Many of the derrière garde of electroacoustic composers began with a background in the classical tradition of music, so know the philosophical logistics of having a performer in the space during diffusion of a composition. Even Depeche Mode started out having the tape machine on stage with them to consciously recognise their position on where parts of the music were originating from.

Perhaps in the postmodern era, like the acousmatic veil has become an assumption, so this corporeal coloratura, however minor, may have been taken for granted as something implied by the form – a sonic arts performance or diffusion concert comes from a starting point that assumes certain key concepts be adhered to prior to reception of a work. 

This pretence of acousmatic veil, the presupposition of a fabric curtain between performer and audience does little to improve relations with the aforementioned pact between the emperor and his subjects who all too often accuse said emperor of wearing clothing only he can see.

To bring this into the gender context of the suggestion that within sonic arts- or at least the electroacoustic tradition still mired in formalist elitism and classical misogyny- exists an echo chamber that propagates the predominantly white male pact with their predominantly white male audience, it is surely not too much of a stretch of the imagination to apply the notion of a forced subscription to a problematic concept such as the pretence of a veil, often against reason or evidence to the contrary, to the problem of male dominance and the patriarchy which has been imposed on women for centuries. 

In light of this problem, it is essential that those white men in a position of power ensure they do all in their potency to address the balance, to encourage diversity in gender, race, and class across the entire field of electroacoustic music, electronic music, sonic arts, and the classical traditions. 

There is so much to love in the classical tradition; but the white man needs to see past his position of privilege and make changes from that position of power to anything that propagates limitations on the lives and political agency of any body type as a result of their difference to the caucasian binary spectrum.

With privilege comes great lethargy – those that do not have to walk an eight mile round trip to the well before they can drink tend towards frivolity – a frivolity they can afford due to their privilege.  

Such lethargy is disrespectful to those who lack that privilege and to allow lethargy over action is to be complicit with the power structures which oppress the individual and keep things cosy for the lethargic. 

In the Sound of Others panel on female sonic artists, Jeffrey Weeter of Cork University spoke of his time on the technical team for the Oprah Winfrey Show, stating that Winfrey was the first to insist on gender balance in the technicians that worked the lighting and sound for the show; and this was recognised as the way forward in gender parity – the person in the position of power used their potency to make waves, to make a change to the industry, to increase the female resource pool at a time when the sound man was king.

It is insufficient to shy away from political action for fear of being misread, or to assume the audience only brought their ears, and to not consider how the weight of every gesture sits in the political state of affairs and how such coloratura can impact and distract the audience’s attention and often come painfully close to saying something but all too often only sufficiently loud to awaken the already woke – it could be argued that it is the responsibility of the artist to be aware of these impacts, to amplify them, to include them in the compositional process of what is kept in the frame.

As one blogger recognises: “artists should understand where their work stands in relation to the contemporary political and social environment. Everything that we, as culture producers, create is 

cultural data that others consume. Regardless of a maker’s intentions, art is political once it is available to any audience. Even something as seemingly neutral as a chair has political implications.” 

The absence of consideration for these implications comes from a mindset of the toxic ideological apparatuses that arise from enabling forced subscription by pretence such as the acousmatic veil, blind formalism, or the patriarchy.

Any artist that does not act consciously of this discourse risks being complicit with the more accelerated toxicity of subscriptions such as classical misogyny and should thus proceed with caution.

In the context of writing, Chris Brecheen recognises the potency of creative work to move the recipient, and that anything that has the ability to move has an innate political agency: 

The personal is political and those who find politics sequestered from anything that affects them personally usually have a lot of social advantages. Aggressively avoiding social issues in one’s writing belies a strong endorsement of the status quo. (…) I’m more interested in considering how we can all be vicegerents of the awesome power that comes with being a writer.

It follows that the creative act of moving a coil, changing air pressure, and affecting the prism and sensibility of the recipient should consider that end user prism; by considering the privilege which gave it the potency to move the heart and prism of that end user –  the innate agency the reception of an artwork has to create eddies in the prism of the beholder will only disappoint- or worse, encourage toxicity- by not considering such potency in the composition and exhibition of the work.

As discussed with the author and colleague in the appendix, we may need to be free to play and explore to have agency to choose whether or not to be political, and to take action in and with our work; but to play and explore, explore and play, never saying anything with our work or being conscious of the irony of our privilege is to blindly enforce our privilege and the action of that inaction is to oppress those that lack such privilege in an echo chamber that benefits only the few.

 

 

 

Appendix I: Online Discussion: Benzies & Strange 

The following is transcript of a discussion started by the author on the 1st of December 2018 on social media platform Facebook; opening with a photoscan of an excerpt from an interview between sonic artist Jez Riley French and composer Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir; input in the discussion is chiefly from Lewis Benzies who comes from an improvised music background (blues, jazz, live coding) and a closing comment from Lucy Edwards, a student of anthropology at the university of Aberdeen. 

This conversation is a record of part of the discussion which has continued elsewhere on social media, and in person with various peers, and has informed the process of writing this essay. Whilst the content of this appendix may not appear directly in the essay, it has been pivotal in framing the discussion towards an academic approach in philosophy on what can be perceived as a social reality when operating on a conscious prism.

No corrections have been made to grammar, spelling, syntax, or philosophical approach though some admin comments have been omitted eg thank yous and I’ll get back to you etc. Transcript is otherwise completely verbatim.

AS 1/12/18 I’m interested in the question of whether or not a sonic artist or composer can be apolitical, or if the absence of political direction – or at least, a lens or prism – within composition, creation, or action within the field of sound amounts to being complicit with the political climate.

This excerpt from Jez Riley French’s Verdure Engraved (North, Accent) feels like it’s edging towards that question but would benefit from elaboration.

Discuss.

[transcript of image feat. Interview excerpt begins]

JrF: I am increasingly aware that the political and social divisions that are currently shaping the world force us to ask questions about our work as artists – what it means, what power it has etc. Do these questions resonate for you as a composer and if so do you believe such thought processes are inherent in the work even when there is no obvious comment?

HSS: My work certainly connects to tuning-in and the site-specific, or to quote Haraway, ‘the only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular’. I’ve also found that an awareness of the outside gaze and the self acting according to the outside gaze, is of importance for ones work. This being said, work in the arts is multi modal and so it is perhaps not until after the completion of  a piece that oner can truly begin to grasp its many layers and its impact or connection to the world. But in order not to digress from the question and as you mentioned the word thought processes: I find the fact that it’s been accepted that knowledge production comes in many guises, one of which is the embodied knowledge production within the arts, to be a most thrilling transformation. We’re in new territory, stepping away from old systems of thought (the isolated genius has been having a hard time of late) towards a shift which connects to collaboration and inclusion. Curating an event where the audience sings along with us, which may reveal different structures within the concert hall environment, may seem innocent but it all relates back to what I mentioned at the start, i.e. the concept of tuning-in, which may be deemed highly relevant in today’s political climate where we’re still pushing for gender equality and are faced with the impact of global warming.

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LB 15/12/18 If we accept interdependence then while existing as a person in a society, no act can be exempt from a potential political frame.  So then it’s about who might perceive it. There could be an overtly political work as intended by the composer, or there could be a work aloof to the political yet a listener  extends it into the political by their interpretation(or revealing something the composer was naive to).  But because the dance between creation and interpretation is so fluid and subjective, I don’t think it could be claimed that a work is fundamentally complicit/apolitical/political, as there could always be one more completely different interpretation.

LB 15/12/18 Short version: No work is exempt yet no work has a definitive position.

AS 15/12/18 a) “No act can be exempt from a potential political frame.”

The artist/composer can do all they’re able to signify a political frame (‘art holding a mirror to society’) whilst removing anything they perceive to dilute that frame. Or a work can be seen through a political prism the artist didn’t anticipate. Granted.

But the key word here is ‘potential’. 

If art has the power to move, the potency to affect change, then outside of ‘play’ and ‘exploration’ – which some academic artists seem to make their life’s work and in doing so has the potential to render their oeuvre goal-less – how can the  sound practitioner not apply their political prism to what they create?

Is the acousmatic curtain a prop for artists to choose not to act in what they create, is this ‘apolitics-pass-filter’ an active choice merely in the process of reduction, to remove nebulous political factors for fear they will be misrepresented; or is it simply enough that the artist of privilege needs not concern themselves with these things?

b) “There could be a work aloof to the political yet a listener  extends it into the political by their interpretation (or revealing something the composer was naive to).”

An artist cannot possibly rule out all potential signifiers the audience might possibly reveal through their prism, granted, though we can try to narrow it down with careful consideration.

Yet the inverse is to create a work that could run the risk of being drastically misinterpreted- and these situations tend to be anomalous, but nevertheless require some care to avoid – but if the prism of the artist isn’t properly applied – or through privilege is too narrow a prism, then the act of ambivalence through not considering the scope for interpretations is complicit with those interpretations to greater extent by the artist not doing their homework enough to at least guide the lens of the observer.

c) “Because the dance between creation and interpretation is so fluid and subjective, I don’t think it could be claimed that a work is fundamentally complicit/apolitical/political, as there could always be one more completely different interpretation.”

This is very true, and one of the great wonders of art and cognition lying in the bed between intention and reception.

But for whatever reason the artist/composer chooses not to apply a tangible political prism to reveal a more specific spectrum of interpretations for the observer, to rely on the subjectivity of art as a ‘get out of jail free’ card to trump the need for a political direction, however minimal, can only result in being complicit with the political state of affairs by wanton inaction.

Look at Asimov’s laws of robotics – first do no harm, nor do harm through inaction.

If the goal of the artist is to hone their craft, and that craft is not being honed enough to consider the political aspect, then the artist scarcely even lifts; and many, many composers can coast by making purely aesthetic trash that does nothing, says nothing, and moves nobody, regardless of the efforts put into its creation; so the real question of intent over interpretation could be this: 

Is the nature of sonic arts and contemporary composition significantly problematic enough to sidestep the need to apply a political lens, or are there significantly reduced political themes in the oeuvre of sonic arts purely because privilege means we can cast out our baubles carelessly from our snug vantage point of running water, electricity, Apple products and freedom of speech?

LB 21/12/18 I’ve thought a lot about this, it’s quite hard to pin down. Through this lens yes some omit the political because they have the luxury to.  So should it now be an ideal to include the political? Then I think “Art is freedom, there are no shoulds”, and then “But  is that freedom built on privilege?”. It could go on and on. The best conclusion I can give is that composition/art has its aesthetic freedom in principle, and the aim for one’s work to be able to incorporate political themes is available within that.

AS 21/12/18 I can totally get behind that – though I may not in the final essay, it’s still being pulled together and you must be psychic because I was literally this evening trying to find the thread to cite it! But yes, the freedom to be political can be amazing for allowing space for the political; almost like how outsider art has nothing to lose other than the identity they gain through being on the outside. I’m really glad you’ve considered it at least – I don’t want to come across as militant so I’m having to whittle it down to the bare bones but it’s an exploration of intrigue.

AS 21/12/18 Oh and I meant to say, earlier this week I recorded a performance and it was almost entirely apolitical and that was a conscious choice to be unconscious. It wasn’t easy to switch off and just let the movement happen without trying to ‘say’ anything with it…but that was a serious departure from what I usually do. It feels like if this were the inverse to a lot of other examples of art, those artists aren’t taking those field trips outside of their comfort zone to explore the political; so is this because a) they’re apathetic from blinkered privilege b) they’re too shy of having a say or c) because sound is a problematic field to have a ‘voice’ in?

LB 21/12/18 It’s still only one lens, however it could be defined as broadly as saying that every moment of contact between a work and it’s receiver is a political act in that it can contribute (hopefully intentionally) to a society flourishing and co-operating. One bleep of a sine wave might be just the right frequency someone needed to lift their mood and cause them to choose courage, compassion etc. in a situation later that day. So through one lens we can look at the function and purpose of it all, and a) b) & c) can apply.  Of course we also need the irrational, subjective, playful, “useless”, innocent. People have different depths of involvement with the creative process, not all have the hunger to question and grow, or do so in a limited range, that’s fine it’s just how they relate(and their art may still be moving). But I agree it would be worthwhile to add the political lens to the perceptual toolbox.

LE 23/12/18 What are we talking about here when we’re talking about “politics”? And what then does it mean for something to be political or to be apolitical…

In the initial section, the question posed to the interviewee mentions division. In places it’s discussed as a climate; in places you discuss it as a prism or prisms that people have. You discuss it as something that motivated people act upon, specifically with regards to reducing people’s experience of harm as they navigate the world. 

Something interesting is that you don’t mention institutional structures at all! Which is something that I would understand as being integral to what “the political” consists of. You know, the government and parliaments and law enforcement and all that. But perhaps this is just relevant to “politics” as you’re discussing it because our macro-level organisation just has a great deal of ability to shape our activity, and therefore could just be a very effective way of changing who experiences harm and how that harm is experienced.

But in general you’re speaking about politics as a sort of… climate of opinion, experience, action? Or like people acting in a heterogenous social field, promoting their aims? These aims in your case being to do with harm-reduction. And you’re discussing how sonic artists can restructure the social/cultural space about themselves by way of reducing the experience of harm? 

I would say looking at it like this kind of opens it up a little bit. Examples drawn from the above: say, artists who undertake their work in a playful and exploratory way, promoting the experience of process over the contrivance of a product; or you in a recent performance, poising your attention so as to be intentionally “unconscious”; or—this is perhaps instinctually my favourite of the three as I think about it just now—the section shown in photograph talks about engendering community and connectivity over individual artistic or scholarly achievement, like an arts concerned with connecting itself to a wider social field as an integral part of its process. Aren’t these all practices that seek to create certain transformations via their way of being creative, seeking to engender qualities and behaviours in performer, audience and their immediate social space? And do you think these artists believe that they’re promoting something beneficial in that population of affected people? If it manages to capture anybody’s attention, then it’s all doing social architecture in one way or another, whether that’s for better or for worse. In general would say there’s an awful lot that’s done in the arts, whether by explicit intent or not, that alleviates people’s sufferings. 

You could likely say that the “arts” as we understand them has kept a close relationship with experiences of mental illness/lack of wellbeing, trauma, neurodiversity etc

Then it’s like, should the arts (or people in general) get their hands into specific issues—issues of race, gender, etc… Like I said in the above, the arts are often associated with what I would discuss in terms of neurodiversity, quite often tacitly, wouldn’t you agree? Beyond that I suppose the work that an artist generates will be closely bound up with their own experiences and reflections, and by extension their relative privileges or lack of privileges in life and so on… Which kind of gets into what Lewis was saying… So should people delve into concerns other than those that have been of immediate relevance to their own lives/struggles…

What about work that’s trying to be sort of escapist, or that’s just trying to generate sort of an energy other than that what you would usually experience, and that doesn’t involve any explicit commentary on salient political issues other than to suggest that to have a positive or exciting or otherwise just intense experience is of benefit to people who are finding daily life a struggle …

I guess what I’m getting at is if politics is treated here as a sort of action carried out with the intent to reshape experience/behaviour within communities—a sort of social architecture, within the means of the activist—then any work of art will be political in some sort of way, as artwork is a kind of work that seeks produces affects among its participants and/or audience. And there are many modes of artistic practice, many of which can be relevant and beneficial within their social context. as to whether or not an artist targets particular issues within their community, such as issues regarding race or gender or neurodiversity etc (or any of the kind of terms in which axes of oppression are discussed)… I don’t really have a well-formed answer for that. which is sort of a significant part of what you’re thinking about, I suppose…

hmm I think there’s more to be said about how activists—whatever their concern(s) might be—form a view of what it is that is relevant, what problems need to be alleviated… about how people experience and imagine their social context. I feel like this isn’t satisfactorily answered by just talking in terms of relative privileges; though privilege is relevant it doesn’t explain how people from relatively similar backgrounds (as differentiated in terms of like the commonly discussed “axes by which could develop different concerns… One of my classmates was talking about Brazilian literature that talks about the “urban imaginary”—I don’t know if that would be relevant here… I think it’s to do with how activist movements (maybe??) develop a way of being aware within their urban environments, and how this is bound up with acting upon certain aims (as differentiated in terms of the commonly discussed “axes” of oppression) could develop different concerns. […]

 

 

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Voice Over Ancient Drums in a Burial Chamber

Using Adriana Cavarero’s Philosophy of Vocal Expression as a launching point to recognise the abstraction of the ‘who’ into the ‘what’, one can find parallels with both an over formalistic approach to composition for the voice, and again, through the metaphor of colonial expatriation.

This composition was formed by recording ancient drums from India in Aberdeen’s Marischal College in one recording session, then blending this with a voice recording session made on Orkney at the iron age Cuween Burial Chamber, where the recordings of drums were used as a ‘backing track’ to work with the concept of channeling the spirit of the drums after absence in their expatriation.

This places a higher contextual value on the character or personality of the drums than on their cultural value as an object which can be taken by force or under duress from the communities; who might otherwise rely on such characters or objects to form the cornerstone of their rituals, cultural identity, and their voice so often carelessly removed in the name of the colonial cultural power grab.

Aesthetic choices were made intuitively with the structure, and measured towards the impact of the absence of the drum over the added voice, so whilst it would have been more aesthetically humdrum to add effects such as reverb, I felt this would only have added an aesthetic ego value to the work and would have removed from the value of the intended context. This results in somewhat abrupt disappearances of the drums; however, this has been consciously kept to a reasonably minimal intensity as a way of making an aesthetic compromise to allow the composition to stay in the realms of quality and safety.

 

Many thanks to Abeer Eladany and Lisa Collinson at Marischal College for making the drums available to me.