SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig. You’re welcome!
This November 1st will mark the 259th anniversary of the Great Lisbon Earthquake on All Saints Day, 1755, which destroyed a quarter of the city and beget consequential tsunamis and fires. “Radio Terramoto” is a soundwalk research and art project designed to bring this seemingly distant devastation into contemporary consciousness. Based on the idea of listening to sound from a past historical event, “Radio Terramoto” is a traveling audience immersive event. It’s inaugural procession, made up of the creators and audience members, followed a path from the Convento do Carmo down to the River Targus in Lisbon, Portugal. It was also performed this summer in the town of Viseu, Portugal, as part of the Invisible Places, Sounding Cities Symposium in July 2014.
“Radio Terramoto” is a radio transmission from All Saints Day, 1755. We are not sure how or why the forty minutes were recorded, but having been discovered aaccidentallyit has proven to be an important record of the experience of the people caught in the earthquake. We follow our mysterious ghost recorder from the Convento, where people were gathered for mass. The first wave hits and the convent crumbles. As people run to the river, we follow their path as the buildings around us burst into flames and collapse. Upon reaching the river in a panic, we are only to be greeted by the water pulling out, revealing flopping fish and shipwrecks, pulling towards the ocean to fuel the giant wave that would finally overcome our poor recorder. From here, the transmission stops. (To read this summary in Portuguese click here).
The project and research for “Radio Terramoto” asks the question, what can listening to the past reveal about the now, both in artistic practice and scientific research? Its site-based (yet mobile) sound design weaves between the present and the past and is based on research on the earthquake, using documents of first hand experiences and the first seismic and “earthquake”-proof architecture that came after what may be the largest earthquake recorded in history.
For the original “Radio Terramoto” soundwalk in Lisbon, first performed November 1, 2013, we walked with the audience bearing a transmitter; the audience carried radios and cell phones tuned into the specific frequency of the transmission. The soundwalk also included hand-held sculptural octahedra created using a geometric framing system designed by Jake Dotson, assembled as a singular form approximating a Pombaline cage, the first modern earthquake resistant architecture. The radio transmitter, and other key electrical devices were suspended in these 1 foot 3 inch octahetra made of brightly colored sticks of wood held together with friction and tension. The large cage broke apart into the individual octahedra to aid in the transportation of equipment and in providing a visual wayfinding aide for the participants.
Like Maile’s “Passageira em Casa,” a traveling intermedia work that explores the concept of “home,” “Radio Terramoto” changes to be site and context specific with each presentation. When we led a performance in Viseu, Portugal, for example, we began at the Sé de Viseu, moved through the old city center, and ended at a small body of water off the Avenida Emídio Navarro.
Planned future performances of “Radio Terramoto” include a version in Los Angeles that will unite the original team in collaboration with Jesse Gilbert. Gilbert created the program SpectralGL, a cell phone app that enables sound to visually affect the landscape from the video camera as the audience member walks. As Los Angeles has its own fraught relationship with earthquakes, we expect this performance to be particularly resonant and thought provoking.
Images courtesy of the artists and Jennifer Stoever (Viseu shots)
Rui Costa is a sound artist from Lisbon, Portugal. He is a founding member and artistic director of Binaural/Nodar, an arts organization founded in 2004 and dedicated to the promotion of context-specific and participatory art projects in rural communities of the Gralheira mountain range, northern Portugal. Rui has been performing and exhibiting his work since 1998 in festivals, galleries and museums across Portugal, Spain, Italy and the United States and has been collaborating regularly with the Italian vocal performer Manuela Barile and the American intermedia artist Maile Colbert. Rui Costa is also a regular speaker in conferences and gives workshops dedicated to sound art. For more from Binaural/Nodar, please check out the organization’s soundcloud, vimeo, and flickr.
Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
Jeff Cain is an artist, designer, curator and director of the Shed Research Institute a multidisciplinary art, research, curatorial, and design studio in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles.
I want to enable my students to mobilize sound studies not just as an analytic filter to help them understand the world, but as a method enabling more meaningful engagement with it. This post, an abbreviated version of the paper I recently gave at the Invisible Places, Sounding Cities Conference in Viseu, Portugal on July 18, 2014, explores my pedagogical efforts to move my sound studies work from theory to methodology to praxis in the classroom and in my larger community. In particular, I am working to intervene in the production of social difference via listening and the process by which differential listening practices create fractured and/or parallel experiences of allegedly shared urban spaces.
Inspired by ongoing efforts such as ReBold Binghamton–the visual arts group alluded to by my assignment’s title– Blueprint Binghamton, and the Binghamton Neighborhood Project, I wanted to articulate sound studies methods with long-term community engagement interventions. I decided to task the upper-level undergraduate students in my Spring 2014 “How We Listen” course with designing community engagement projects that identified and addressed an issue in Binghamton, the de-industrialized town in upstate New York housing our university. My students’ proposals ranged from rain-activated sound art, to historical sound walks that layered archival sounds with current perceptions, and a “noise month” sound-collection and remix project designed to challenge entrenched attitudes. They then presented the projects via a public poster session open to faculty members, administrators, community representatives, and peers.
Working with local residents and using asset-based theories of civic engagement, the students’ projects sought to re-sound Binghamton, enhancing existing forms of communication, amplifying hidden sounds and histories, and creating new sounds to resound throughout Binghamton’s future. While the students initially set out to “fix” Binghamton—bringing year-round residents into the world as their largely 18-21 selves heard it—the majority opened their ears to alternative understandings that left them questioning the exclusivity of their own listening practices. Students realized that while they may have been inhabiting Binghamton for the past few years, they hadn’t been perceptually living in the same town as year-round residents, and, conversely, that the locals’ tendencies to hear students as privileged nuisances had historical and structural roots.
The historical, theoretical, and methodological groundwork that scholars of sound have laid in recent decades toward heightened social and political understandings of sound—fantastic in volume, quality, AND reach—have equipped sound studies scholars with powerful critical tools with which to build a more directly, civically engaged sound studies, one as much interested in intervention and prevention as continued reclamation and recovery. Scholar-artists such as Linda O’Keeffe have begun to fuse audio artistic praxis with the more social science-oriented field of urban studies. O’Keeffe’s community project, highlighted in “(Sound)Walking Through Smithfield Square in Dublin,” set out to solve an audio- spatial problem at the very heart of the city: why did the city’s efforts to “rehabilitate” the landmark Smithfield Square—which had been a public market for hundreds of years—bring about its demise as a thriving public space rather than its rejuvenation? Equipping local students with recorders, O’Keeffe documented the students’ understanding of the space as “silent,” even though it was far from absent of sound. She noted local teenagers felt repelled by the newly wide-open square; the reverberation of their sounds as they grouped together to chat made them feel uncomfortable and surveilled—so it remained an isolating space of egress rather than a gathering place.
Importantly, O’Keeffe’s conclusion moved beyond self-awareness to political praxis; she presented her students’ self-documentation to Dublin city planners, intervening in Smithfield’s projected future and attempting to prevent similar destruction of other thriving city soundscapes unaligned with middle-class sensory orientations. O’Keeffe’s work sparked me to think of listening’s potential as advocacy and agency, as well as the increasing importance of reaching beyond the identification of diverse listening habits toward teaching people to understand the partiality and specificity of their sonic experience in combination with the impact listening—and the power dynamics it is enmeshed in—has on the lives, moods, and experiences of themselves and others. Listening habits, assumptions, and interpretations do not just shape individual thoughts and feelings, but also one’s spatial experience and sense of belonging to (or exclusion from) larger communities, both actual and imagined. Learning to understand one’s auditory experience and communicate it in relation to other people enables new forms of civic engagement that challenge oppression at the micro-level of the senses and seeks equitable experiences of shared space to counter the isolating exclusion compelled by many urban soundscapes.
O’Keeffe’s project also made me rethink how space-sound is shaped through social issues such as class inequity, particularly in my community of Binghamton, a small town of approximately 54,000 currently facing profound economic challenges. The end of the Cold War devastated Binghamton’s economy—then primarily based in defense—and the economic downturn of the early-1990s provided a knock-out punch, severely impacting the region in ways it has yet to recover from: the behemoth local IBM relocated to North Carolina, manufacturing jobs permanently decreased by 64%, and the population shrank almost by half. Recent climate-change induced disasters have also left their mark; massive floods in 2005 and 2011—on a geographic footprint historically flooding only 200-500 years—displaced thousands of low-income residents, destroyed many businesses, and collectively caused close to 2 billion dollars in damage. The global recession of 2008 left over 30% of Binghamton’s residents below the poverty line, including 40% of all children under 18.
The campus, 12,000 undergraduate students strong, often seems remote from the city I just described. Only 6% of BU students are drawn from its surrouding Broome County. The vast majority (60%) of BU’s students hail from the New York City metro area, a site of racialized economic tension with the rest of the state, evidenced by campaigns such as “Unshackle Upstate.” Indeed, Binghamton’s student body is more racially diverse than Binghamton the city (Vestal, where the university is located, is 88% white), and even though the relatively low-cost public university–approximately eight thousand dollars a year for in-state tuition– serves many first-generation college students, students with generous financial aid packages, and students employed while matriculating, the city’s poverty amplifies even slight class privilege.
These long-term structural fissures have led to tensions between the university students—whom some Binghamtonians problematically peg as wealthy outsiders and/or racially target—and full-time residents, dubbed “Townies” by many students and dehumanized as the backdrop to their college experience. While students and year-round residents inhabit the same physical spaces in Binghamton, they are not in fact living the same place and they often experience, interpret, and act on the same auditory information in drastically different ways. Binghamton sounds differently to each group, in terms of the impressions and interpretations of various auditory phenomena as well as the order of importance an individual gives to simultaneous sounds at any given moment.
Embodied aural perceptions shaped by class, race, age, and differing regional experience may in fact drive many of the “town and gown” conflicts—noise complaints most obviously—and exacerbate others, particularly mutually distorted perceptions that students bring Binghamton down and that residents are, as one student cruelly stated in the campus newspaper, “creatures” from “an endless horror movie.” So how to address this divide? And how to use sound studies to do it? I knew I did not want to impose a community project on my students that did not have their buy in and creative energy behind it. I decided on a group-sourcing project that asked students to work together to design a sound-studies based community project. I envisioned the assignment as the first phase of a longer-term project, with the most workable idea serving as the basis for a full-blown service learning experience in future courses. However, the assignment proved to be pedagogically valuable in its own right, not just as a prelude to future work.
I arranged my course around the proposal assignment, providing students with the critical thinking skills to imagine a project of this type. We began with theoretical and methodological materials that would introduce them to sound studies—none of my students were familiar with the field and its assumptions—and ground their thinking in the idea that listening is a complex sociocultural, political, and critical practice. While we read and discussed multitude of pieces on listening, the students reported four scholars as especially inspirational to the project: Yvon Bonenfant’s theorization of “queer listening” as a listening out (rather than the more normative taking in), Regina Bradley’s work on race and listening in American courtrooms that focused on how white lawyers discredit witnesses speaking patois and African American Vernacular English, Maile Costa Colbert’s artistic imagining of a “wayback sound machine,” and Emily Thompson’s work on noise and time/space/place, particularly in her new interactive “Roaring Twenties” project. Student Daniel Santos reported in a survey following the project,
The relationship between sound and time was very useful to our project; we understood the concept that no city ever sounds the same after a long period of time, and we sought to take advantage of this fact. Through our residents’ stories, we learned that Binghamton was once booming with sound from numerous, lucrative industries. Walking into a factory brought an industrial cacophony: card punchers thudded as steel was pounded against steel. However, today, a walk into these factories results in an eerie silence. We wanted our soundwalk participants to realize and become affected by this lack of and difference in sound, and raise pertinent questions: what happened to these sounds? Why is there such a large difference in sound levels? Where do I place myself within this soundscape?
I worked with Binghamton’s Center for Civic Engagement—a model program founded in 2010—and in particular with Assistant Director Christie Zwahlen, to equip students with basic-but-solid knowledge that would enable a new understanding of community work. Zwahlen brought home two major principles to students: 1) service learning has a pedagogical component; it is important to a project’s success that students learn something through their work rather than merely donating time or skills, 2) Community engagement works best when based on identifying and mobilizing a community’s assets rather than implementing an external project addressing perceived deficits. These two concepts meshed especially well with the students’ evolving understanding of listening as multifaceted, political, and deeply impacted by temporal and spatial contexts, because it required the students to engage directly with community members and learn how to listen to their voices, histories, and needs.
For both civic engagement and sound studies, Zwahlen and I introduced students to the various methods used to solve problems and answer our most important questions. For civic engagement, Christie focused on the asset map, which forced students to think of the surrounding community in terms of its strengths rather than the weaknesses they could already readily list. This exercise not only flipped their perspective but also helped them imagine and hone their project by identifying community stakeholders who would be receptive to their inquiries.
In terms of sound studies, I introduced them to a multiplicity of methods through readings, experiential activities, and process writing, in particular sound provocations and sound walks. According to student Hannah Lundeen’s post-project survey, the sound walks she performed proved especially fruitful:
Initially, solving a community issue through sound seemed next to impossible. It wasn’t until sitting down and thinking about the sound studies methods of soundwalks that it became clear. I liked soundwalks because they are a way to engage anyone in sound studies. They are an easy concept to explain to people who may not have thought much about their soundscape previously. They are an active and fun way to engage all community members in listening well.
As Lundeen relates, interweaving these methods formed the foundation of their community projects, enabling their inquiries regarding understanding differences in listening, how to enable people to recognize and discuss aspects of their listening, and to provoke some kind of impactful social change.
The final third of the semester was devoted to working on the final project [Click these links for the Rubric for Final Poster Presentation we used to assess the projects as well as the assignment sheet with Tips for Successfully Completing this Project both of which I handed out on day one! ]. Following an initial period of research and discussion, students narrowed down their project ideas, identified and met in person with potential community partners–ReBold Binghamton, Binghamton’s Center for Technology & Innovation, the Parks Department and several City Council members were especially helpful– and put together their proposals, emphasizing their new understandings of listening and its relationship to space and place via community mobilization. Students prepared a 7-minute gloss of their projects for public presentation that
- identified an issue (supported by research)
- described how project addressed the issue
- presented community asset map as a foundation
- shared list of potential community partners
- discussed sound studies methodologies supporting the project
- estimated benchmarks for the project’s completion
- projected the project’s long-term outcomes
- prepared personal reflections on the process.
Here is a sampling from the rich palette of student project pitches:
- Restoring the Pride: A public art initiative building rain-activated sound sculptures.
- BUCS: Binghamton Unites Community with Sound: A public group karaoke project.
- Safe and Sound: A “kiosk walk” of 10-interactive electronic sound art pieces that increase downtown destination traffic by day and operate as a “blue light” safety system by night.
- Blues on the Bridge Junior: A children’s music stage at one of Binghamton’s most popular yearly events.
- Happy Hour: A weekly campus radio show designed to combat seasonal depression.
- Listen Up!: Sound Month Binghamton: An annual themed digital “sound collection month” in March with accompanying “sounds of Binghamton” remix project. This project fosters community habituation to “Others’” sounds while also tracking long-term changes in the soundcape and in residents’ ideas of noise.
- A Sound Walk Through Binghamton: Historical soundwalks through several areas in Binghamton, where archival sounds of the past (some compiled from recordings, some performed) are placed in continuity and contrast with contemporary soundscapes.
Zwahlen and I understand that this iteration of the project does not constitute civic engagement as of yet. Certainly, the students raised more questions than solutions: how to work with—and equitably solicit contributions from—community members rather than organize classroom-first? How to increase community involvement on a campus that is a foreboding maze at best—and how to increase student traffic in the many sites not reached by Binghamton’s limited public transportation? Most importantly, How to share sound studies epistemology beyond the classroom, creating listening experiences that not only take differences into account but potentially re-script them?
As we move forward with long-term development, we will undoubtedly encounter more questions. However, even at its earliest stages, I believe guiding my students to integrate sound studies methodologies with asset-based service learning provided them with a transformative experience concerning the powerful resonance of applied knowledge and sparked the kind of self-realization that leads to civically engaged citizens. It created meaningful connections between them and a local community suddenly made significantly larger. For my students, listening became more than a metaphor or an individualized act of attention, rather they began to understand its role as a material conduit of location, outreach, and connection. As an anonymous student shared in my teaching evaluations: “This class was different, but in a very good way. It has been so involved with the human experience, more so than with other classes.” In the middle of the so-called “humanities crisis,” this response points to the potential power of a civically engaged sound studies, a branch of the field combining research with praxis to reveal the role of listening in the building, maintenance, and daily experiences of diverse communities in the city spaces they mutually inhabit but often do not fully and equitably share.
Featured Image by Shea Brodsky, (L to R) Binghamton University Students Robert Lieng, Daniel Santos, and Susan Sherwood, Director of Binghamton’s Center for Technology & Innovation (CT&I)
Jennifer Stoever is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sounding Out! She is also Associate Professor of English at Binghamton University and a recipient of the 2014 SUNY Chancellor’s Award in Teaching.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Sounding Out! Podcast #13: Sounding Shakespeare in S(e)oul– Brooke Carlson
Deejaying her Listening: Learning through Life Stories of Human Rights Violations– Emmanuelle Sonntag and Bronwen Low
Audio Culture Studies: Scaffolding a Sequence of Assignments– Jentery Sayers
A Conversation Article in Chat with Irene Lusztig, Director of The Motherhood Archives and Sound Designer Maile Colbert
In 2011 filmmaker Irene Lusztig contacted me about designing sound and composing for her film project, The Motherhood Archives.
Irene had spent several years buying discarded educational films on eBay and working in historical archives to amass an unusual and fascinating collection of archival films aimed at teaching women how to be pregnant, give birth, and look after babies. The Motherhood Archives uses this extraordinary archival treasure trove to form a lyrical essay film excavating hidden histories of childbirth in the twentieth century, illuminating our changing narratives of maternal success and failure, and raising questions about our social and historical constructions of motherhood.
I was immediately intrigued by her concept and construction process as well as her desire to work with sound design in a very collaborative manner at an earlier stage in the project than most filmmakers would. Geographically distant, Irene and I mostly worked by “satellite,” using email, chat, Skype, phone, and file sharing software to communicate and send files. We did manage to have a few production weeks in New York and Santa Cruz, but the majority of the work was woven back and forth across an ocean and continent…California to Lisbon, Portugal, West Coast to West Coast. Rather than hindering, this method lent itself to an exquisite corpse nature to the work. In the creation of this article we followed much the same process, using an initial Gmail chat.
Maile Colbert (MC): So, I’m both shy and excited about asking this… why me, Irene?
Irene Lusztig (IL): I had heard your work in both Adele Horne’s film [The Tailenders, 2005] and Rebecca Baron’s [How Little We Know of Our Neighbors, 2005], both films with beautiful sound.
The sound in How Little We Know of Our Neighbors in particular does something with natural / unnatural that I was really interested in – field recordings that somehow become other kinds of things as they are layered, transformed, and processed. I think of myself as a documentary maker / artist who is invested in actuality, but not very invested in traditional documentary form, and I think your sound has similar investments and disinvestments. It begins with the sounds of the real world but takes those sounds to very unexpected places that are often quite far from their original context.
MC: I love that you brought up the “natural/unnatural.” It not only really describes well my work and approach in general, but also the experience we get in your film with mediated motherhood. We would often talk about certain sections being very science fiction…then you think, wow, this really happened, this is part of a history that led up to our experience now, and one I’m currently having, having recently become pregnant for the first time!
IL: I think there is a lot to say about science fiction and sound! First, there is a great tradition of feminist science fiction that I feel like our work is very connected to: Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin, and even stuff like Shulamith Firestone’s futuristic vision of external uteruses. A lot of that work has in common a willingness to “make strange” or denaturalize aspects of female reproduction and mothering in ways that feel radical.
MC: I’m not sure if I was able to contain my excitement when you first mentioned a section felt sci-fi to you. This is something that I think has a root back in my childhood. My father was and is an obsessive science fiction film watcher: I grew up with a soundtrack of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Lost in Space. These soundscapes that “weren’t” became such a part of what I wanted to listen to.
IL: I always thought I had no interest in science fiction when I was younger, but I think growing a human inside my own body probably shifted my relationship to that!
I think science fiction is almost always expressing our anxieties about the future, about our technologies, about things that we struggle to control. And of course questions and anxieties about trying and failing to control things are completely at the heart of our experiences with pregnancy, birth, and learning to be new mothers in the 21st century. As are questions around technological mediations that we feel ambivalent about, whether it’s fertility technologies, medicalized birth technologies, or things like baby monitors or worrying about whether the iPad is rewiring your baby’s brain. So science fiction feels like a sonic space that totally makes sense for negotiating these maternal anxieties.
MC: One of our biggest struggles was trying to make sure things weren’t too dark for the audience.
IL: People often respond with anxiety to the film and its sound design. I’ve never before made a film where the sound comes up so often in post-screening discussions, and generally the question is something like “why is the sound so dark / scary / anxiety-provoking?” It seems very specific to the subject of The Motherhood Archives – how anxious we are societally about the whole topic, and also how uncomfortable we are being open about these anxieties.
MC: I’m still shocked at how shocked I am when I realize how some people react to this film, how uncomfortable they are. U.S. society seems just as afraid of birth as death in this manner! We speak of each in such a similar way and we’re not allowed the complexity of, for example, being simultaneously anxious about how this will affect our careers and identity, and how in love we are when we hear that heartbeat!
IL: Do you think of yourself as a feminist artist? I ask because becoming a mother (and making art about motherhood) has made me much more aware of myself as a feminist artist.
MC: I absolutely consider myself a feminist– it’s woven into every part of my life and my work. I’m also beginning to feel this in a new way with the pregnancy: I recently lost a gig I was really looking forward to because there was an assumption that I couldn’t do it somehow because I was pregnant. A recent interviewer asked me about how I navigate motherhood and my work, and I couldn’t help consider that this question would never come up with a male artist.
My recent recordings of my future daughter growing and moving have been wonderful to listen to: watery and subdued, you still feel like you’re only getting a little of her sonic world, so mysterious. But it reminds me of when I was a child – in any body of water I loved to dive down to the bottom, let go of my breath and just rest there as long as I could…it was an ultimate peace. I loved the visual perspective of the world above me, but most loved the deep gentle filter of everything aural coming through this watery world. Some might argue that peace refers to our first soundscape experienced…and listening to my own active womb, it doesn’t seem far-fetched.
IL: There are a lot of watery sounds in the film! My friend Irene Gustafson made this great connection between all the water in the soundtrack and the voiceover passage in the twilight sleep section about how the “soothing sound of running water muffles newborn cries to prevent the formation of what are called islands of memory.” That description of water literally being used to erase memory allows all the water sounds throughout the film to become a metaphor for the erasure of historical memory… the fact that we no longer remember the historical moment where feminists were advocates for anesthetic drugs and medicalized childbirth, for instance…the many ways that the histories in the film are now forgotten.
MC: I think sounds are like cells in a way…they carry a memory, even though abstracted.
That’s why I love working with natural sources initially, something comes through from that palette, a shadow is carried from its initial source. As animals, we use sound for information, much processing and translation happens that we aren’t even aware of. So I do feel like when a sound is removed by processing, it still carries its source information with it, and we pick up on some of that.
IL: Talking about cellular memory makes me think about the section of the film that a friend described as “crispy cells:” the image is from a very early 20th century educational film about reproduction – sheep cells that are dividing and reproducing – and the sound is the sound of the magnetosphere, which I love!
MC: I find listening to the magnetosphere sort of grounds me. I use a VLF recorder very often when I travel. If there are lightening storms or space weather, like solar storms, you get these very beautiful and strange soundscapes. I often use the recordings in my work, but your film is the first that seemed to demand them as a sound source! That section just called out for them, in their “pure” form. When you placed them there and sent it to me, I was blown away…it seemed like that was the sound of the video itself somehow.
I’ve been collecting and working on my sound library for over a decade now, and I’ve never been in a situation where a client or collaborator was interested in it in such a hands-on way. It seemed so right to share it with you and build upon it together for this project. For each sound – some of them going way back – I still remember the source, recording conditions, what was surrounding it (or rather what it was surrounding usually!). They become symbols, but also memory triggers. Now some of them have changed and were saved with this project, so there are generations as well. And the historic archival sounds you added to it…they come with their own history and memory; your film and their use is then added to that.
IL: Speaking of archival sound, one of the most amazing (to me) moments in our collaboration was really close to the end when you sent me the end credit sound. We’ve actually never talked about this because as soon as you sent it I totally intuitively and immediately knew that it was perfect. The sound is a backwards transformation of the wax cylinder Chopin Waltz recording that is used earlier in the film during the pregnant ballet sequence. There’s something so brilliant about your instinct to bring back that very polite, restrained music at the end, but have it reversed – both because it turns something familiar and half-remembered on its head, but also because I think it says something about history that is so attuned to the way the film works. The film thinks about histories of childbirth, but the chronological structure is circular, not linear – which I think of as a kind of challenge to the conventional forward-marching progress narrative. History is always haunting the present, and history is always circular. It makes amazing and beautiful sense that this music that we’ve heard before returns at the end in this uncanny backwards form.
Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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Wayback Sound Machine: Sound Through Time, Space, and Place– Maile Colbert
Sounds Like a Baby– Liana Silva-Ford
Editor’s Note: Welcome to Sounding Out!‘s fall series titled “Sound and Play,” where we ask how sound studies, as a discipline, can help us to think through several canonical perspectives on play. While Johan Huizinga had once argued that play is the primeval foundation from which all culture has sprung, it is important to ask where sound fits into this construction of culture; does it too have the potential to liberate or re-entrench our social worlds? SO!’s regular contributor Maile Colbert interviews sound artist Andrea Parkins and gets her to talk about her creative process, and the experience of playing with sound, composition, and instruments.–AT
In 2003, working towards my graduate degree in Integrated Media at California Institute for the Arts, I met and worked with a visiting artist by the name of Andrea Parkins, with whom I became a friend and colleague. Although I’ve been familiar with her work for more than a decade, every time I see Andrea perform my mind is blown. And, every time we discuss her practice, her methodology, and her thoughts on art and work, I’m always compelled and inspired in my own practice as a sound artist. In particular, I am impressed by her insights on the relationship between art, play, and the act of improvisation. The interview that follows is both a sampling of the conversations we have been gifted with throughout the years and a rare opportunity to listen in to the creative process of a working sound artist.
1. Hi Andrea, how are you today? What are you in the middle of?
I’m well – working on a number of different projects at the moment, including preparing for a residency at Q-02: workspace for experimental music and sound art, in Brussels, where I’m going to be working on a new multi-diffusion sound piece, addressing the interaction of moving objects with human gesture in idiosyncratic acoustical spaces. I’m also working on some new recordings – one is a catalogue of short pieces, combining electric accordion-generated feedback with processed field recordings; and another incorporates 15 short object-based electronic pieces into a live ensemble work.
2. Can you describe your entrance into the world of sound and music?
I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, acutely aware of the drones and sonic events in the surrounding rural landscape. At the same time my early experience of sound through my teens resided in realm of the “musical” and the social; it connoted family (nearly all of my family members were/are musicians, and music and sound was always present); culture; and musical practice as ritual. Most family members were serious classical musicians, some were rock musicians and singer/songwriters; some were both. I studied classical piano from the age of 6 through my early twenties, and from the beginning had access to and absorbed a wide range of musics– immediately attracted to dissonance, or music with subtle harmonic and timberal changes. After high school, I moved to Boston and studied jazz piano and free improvisation. In my early 20s, I bought an analog synth, and experimented with oscillators and filters, playing synth in punk, free jazz, and new wave bands. Probably most important in my sonic development was that I went to art school and in that context began making experimental films and video, drawings and installation. I believe that my exposure to non-narrative film especially had a profound effect on how I began thinking of compositional possibilities for sound, and about art that happens in time, and also space
3. Speaking of worlds, what is the line experienced, if there is one, between the experimental sound art world and improvisation? How did you find yourself with one foot in each of these worlds, and how do you navigate between them?
While I know that some artists and theorists do draw a line between sound art and improvisational “music” performance, I don’t usually think about it that way, and for the most part that is not how I experience my relationship with sound. Having said this, I recognize that there are communities that identify themselves as one thing or the other, and performance and exhibition spaces that are organized based on one side or the other of this dichotomy, so at times I do have to “navigate between them.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: this allows artists to build a common discourse around their particular focus, and can even develop a creative legacy among artists. For myself, I try to think about my intentions regarding a particular installation or performance: especially in consideration of site and audience, and formulate language around this that can speak to the specifics of the situation.
4. And being a woman in these worlds, have you found a difference between when you were starting out and now? Have you found a difference within the generations you work with?
I believe that for younger women, things have changed a lot: peer communities of young artists are more integrated gender-wise, and it seems that there are many more women worldwide are active and visible as experimental musicians and sound artists than when I began. I came “of age” at a different juncture and did not have this experience. To some extent this was because of the class and milieu that I came from, which meant there was no model in front of me. I do think this would have been mitigated if I had learned sooner about some of the female innovators of electronic music, among them: Bebe Barron, Wendy (Walter) Carlos, Eliane Radigue, Maryanne Amacher, Laurie Spiegel, and Pauline Oliveros. This exposure came later.
When I began working as an improvising musician, I found myself on the periphery, and never wholly part of, a group of mostly male colleagues. There were aspects to this experience that I actually now appreciate. It had value because I remained in the position of an outsider, and while I felt some sense of displacement because of this, it allowed me to develop my own critique of whatever prevailing processes and products were happening at that time, and a new assessment of what I wanted to create. I should mention that when working alone or in collaboration in other forms: intermedia, sound and performance installation, I have found that these contexts offer a more inclusive politics and discourse.
5. Something interesting came up in our last conversation that inspired me to change this question around a bit. Instead of asking you to talk about your works, and since our readers can access many different interviews, documents, and articles online, can you talk about how to talk about your work?
This is something I am learning how to do (yet again), as I become more aware that my work engages with multiple practices, multiple voices, multiple processes. It’s about beauty too (that dirty word) – in the sense that beauty (for me) is about viscerality, atmosphere, presence, fragility; this calls my attention to the physical space I am in and to how time is passing: that is to say, to mortality. Most recently I have been seeking different forms of sonic structure that are not based on “history” as forward motion, as a narrative driving through time, but that can allow for stasis, multiplicity, simultaneity, and chaos and acceptance of a potentially forward moving structure to fall totally apart.
Since 2005, in addition to exploring these modalities as an improviser and composer (for live instruments), I have been working to reintegrate a more interdisciplinary approach to my work – referencing the materiality of objects, and the body in motion, and engaging in wider range of sonic sources and processes, visual elements, and acoustical spaces. This has resulted in my creation of several fixed media works for the gallery/installation setting, as well as some electronic music pieces scored only for objects.
6. The term improvisation confuses a lot of people, and can be hard to articulate. What does it mean to you? And within improv, what does “work” and what does “play” means to you?
Speaking most simply, improvisation is (for me) a series of compositional decisions made in real time that are then immediately acted upon, with acute attention: to self, other, site and context. Being an improviser entails so much listening (to oneself and others, at the same time) and also connecting with others while maintaining one’s own sonic space/language; in a way it’s social and interiorized process at the same time. So it’s work! You are — at times – straining your ears; listening for the clues for what others are “saying,” even if they are not quite saying it. Perhaps this even involves a kind of telepathy. However, at its best moments it can be exhilarating work; there can be lively engagement among fellow performers — or when performing alone when moving among one’s own sonic materials and instruments – that is highly stimulating and fun.
7. Is there a hierarchy of process versus presentation for you?
I often find that my best-laid plans must be jettisoned because I have an idea or epiphany that suddenly strikes me, and it just won’t wait. For me, these “lightening bolts” often quickly resolve into having to face a challenging new work process — challenging perhaps because I have been afraid that somehow it won’t produce a result that I can readily identify as successful. But the old ways will always be there, and in the meantime it is possible that by trying something else, a new discovery will come that transforms everything – including the way I think about what a “successful result” should look like. I now feel that the notion of a “successful result” in itself has become pretty relative, and in some cases, a moot point. This is because what I now define as successful can often have much to do with my assessment of the process I employ in making something, rather than how well I have fulfilled the requirements of a pre-meditated structure: the result. This has made my engagement with my work much more open-ended in a way that I have learned to appreciate over time.
For me, composition mostly happens in the editing: that is where I find (uncover, sculpt) structure from the sound that I collect and/or record, building up a mass of material from which I can “find the piece” through editing, assemblage and layering. I think this is similar to the way some filmmakers might shoot video/film and then from raw footage hone in on or discover a film’s structure via the editing process. I like the idea that instead of filling a pre-ordained structure with content one can move the content around until the structure emerges. Maybe one recognizes the completed structure when one sees it. I like to remember that a structure, even if unusual, asymmetric, messy, seemingly random, or just plain weird – if that is what emerges – is still a structure, howsoever idiosyncratic. And it can be presented.
8. Can you talk about differences between performance vs. play and performance vs. studio to you, and your relationship with the instruments you play?
In 2002, I began developing a MAX-based extended processing instrument inspired by Rube Goldberg and his machines. It has built into its programming seemingly “randomized” sonic processing that highlights and/or alters specific frequencies and densities, with emphasis on repetitions, interruptions, stasis and malfunction. When I began working with the instrument, I was exploring processes related to Fluxus in my compositional and improvisational practices. I was also thinking about a kind of poetics that I saw as related to my independent studies in feminist and psychoanalytic theory, and to the body of an improvising performer who is up against the limits of his or her own virtuosity. Once I designed the instrument I realized there really was a connection to these things – and to how approach decision-making as an artist – the importance of chance – but also slippage and failure and moments of physical awkwardness as what I try to accomplish on a technical level comes perilously (and for me, interestingly) close to falling apart – especially when performing with multiple instruments in simultaneity. My virtual instrument is a collaborative partner who doesn’t cooperate. It makes “sense and non-sense,” The slippage and failure relates to meaning, and for me is a metaphor for loss or displacement. For me, this is important … to me this is daily, everyday life.
Featured Image Photo Credit: Julia Berg 2010
Andrea Parkins is a composer, sound/installation artist and improvising electroacoustic performer who engages with interactive electronics as compositional/performative process, and explores strategies related to Fluxus’ ordered, ephemeral activities. She is a key participant in the New York sound art and experimental music scene, and worldwide she is known for her pioneering gestural/textural approach on her electronically-processed accordion and self-designed virtual sound-processing instruments. Described as a “sound-ist,” of “protean,” talent by The New York Times music critic Steve Smith, Parkins’ laptop electronics and Fender-amped accordion create sonic fields of lush harmonics and sculpted electronic feedback, punctuated by moments of gap and rift. Her work has been presented at the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Kitchen, Diapason, and Experimental Intermedia; and international festivals/venues including Mexico City’s 1st International Sound Art Festival, NEXT in Bratislava, Cyberfest in St. Petersberg, and q-02 in Brussels. Parkins’ recordings have been published by Important Records, Atavistic, and Creative Sources, and her work has received support from American Composers Forum, NYSCA, the French-American Cultural Exchange, Meet the Composer, Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center, and Frei und Hanseastadt Hamburg Kulturbehoerde. Parkins is on faculty at Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program.
Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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