Mountain studio and Manfred Werder’s ‘2010’
Last week I wrote about how I found some clarity in understanding my own propensity to get away from the construction sounds within Bogong Village. I’ve thus far not explored the urge to get closer to the sounds and understand them better, mostly due to politeness and not wanting to bother the workers. Instead, I’ve made a ‘mountain studio’: a place to work that’s about a two hour climb away, where I can seek a kind of solitude from the all-too-humanness in and around.
I’m not just going to extremes to run away from construction sounds. I’m also finding that the hard work it takes to get to this place is part of the creative process. It empties me out. It lets me run personal things over in my mind until the forest clears them out and leaves space to better understand how to exist, to ‘be sound’, there.
A text that’s become key for this trip was loaned to me by one of my dearest friends, Jameson Feakes. ‘Writing the Field Recording’, edited by Stephen Benson and Will Montgomery, is a strange book that folds in many art practices that work with immersion in the world, or create frames to include a kind of ‘whole-worldness’ in them through extreme transparency or the use of so-called field recordings as part of the compositional material. The book contains many references to composers affiliated with Wandelweiser, many of whom are friends. Nicholas Melia’s article on Manfred Werder has been a compelling read for me and has informed how I approach these mountain climbs.
Here is a quote from the article. It begins by describing a musical practice outlined in a 3rd century Chinese literary text:
“Practitioners of such music remained interested less in ‘completely satisfying’ the demands of ear or palette than in reserving execution in order to ‘possess the highest degree of potential flavour’. Here, the musician is unacquainted with the opposition between the audible and inaudible, but is concerned merely with the maintenance of a maximum virtuality, a state rendered by Werder in his text on [Francois] Jullien as ‘the totality of all existing sounds’ or ‘the sounding of the world’. A totality of potential sounds, Werder continues, ‘by far exceeds the small section audible for human beings’.” (Nicholas Melia, in Writing the Field Recording, p. 54)
This particular rendering of the listening experience to Werder’s music really struck me. The idea of thinking about sustaining a kind of intensity of virtuality as an ethical practice makes a huge amount of sense to me, and I guess manifested a new way of thinking about silence that I had not yet understood prior.
I think it’s true to say that, prior to this moment, two kinds of silence in particular have been captivating to me, and the tension between my interest in them unresolved. One is the ‘soft silence’ of a lot of very quiet music like the Splinter Orchestra, or Antoine Beuger and Eva-Maria Houben, where it feels as though music is continually ‘let go of’ with an altruistic gentleness and eternal curiosity for how it can be picked back up again. Here silence is like a ‘weave’ that the intentional sounds are threaded through: there could be almost no difference between playing and not playing, and whether the sounds are heard or not by an audience is not really an issue either (I want to clarify that ‘soft’ does not mean ‘weak’). Meanwhile, in Berlin reductionism or the work of Francisco Lopez there is a much harder-edged silence which feels more redolent with the intensity of possibility, and the drama of anticipation (even when it is very long, or bordered by near-inaudible sounds).
In both musics, silence remains full of potential, in different ways. But this idea pertaining to Werder’s music almost combines the two, for me. A way of thinking through intensity without ‘hardness’?
On the mountain, I’ve been playing a kind of improvisation where I use Werder’s thinking, and his score 2010, as an informant. I am playing a lot less than I usually do when I improvise, but finding a way to still do this through my own grammar and vocabulary as a musician in a way I’ve not been able to understand prior. This grammar and vocabulary is one that has (I propose) emerged through sustained and hopefully considered engagement with the various sonic cultures that I live in and through (global experimental music practice, the history of the saxophone, the Irish and Afrikaans songs my parents and grandparents sang to me as a child, the sound-ecology and sound-culture of Boorloo and Noongar boodja more broadly). I am present to the immense density of the sound culture happening in the ‘mountain studio’: whipbirds, cockatoos, manna gums, treeferns…my familiarity with some of these sounds, the way I have been a student to some of them, the way many of them are new. In the past, despite my love of Wandelweiser and its associated performance practice, and how much I owe to it, I felt a certain ‘non-belonging’ of that discipline in the radical noisiness of the Country I have played on here, the history of anthropogenic sounding here, and of the way I belong to this landmass.* Presently I am crafting a new weave between my learnings from this inspiring field of practice, and the way the land here teaches me.
I’m loving the results. They are weird, disjunct but continuous, soft and hard at once (hell yes!), often beautiful, absorbed in echo but not prescriptively.
The other piece I have been working on happens in the dam within the village. Every night I go there and continue to develop a piece in the company of the frogs, moths and white-striped freetail bats.
Contrary to the mountain studio, the dam is not superficially dense with sound. From where I stand I hear occasional pinpoint droplets of water falling, a distant rush of a stream, the frogs echoing, softly. A diaphanous ongoingness, more silent than silence. But a sound which reaches every edge of the space might resonate, presently, for up to ten seconds.
In Wellstead, on Menang boodja in south-west Western Australia, I explored recording inside the empty oat silos on the farm at Windi Windi. I was doing this for an artwork by Elizabeth Pedler which was an almost-anthropological teasing out of the diverse relationships people in that community hold to plants using video, interviews and sound. I wasn’t employed as a musician as such, but I wanted a kind of trace of music to exist in this work. I almost wanted to access the mode of listening one experiences when hearing music, whilst trying not to make actual music. To simply break up the fullness of the work with pitch. As such I was simply playing periodic tones with no sense of melody or development into the silos, letting a vessel for plant-life (destined for human use) transform the sounds with their distinct reverb, and the way they awash the sound in the glow of wind and dust.
For my own pleasure, though, I also improvised with the sound of the vessels – though without wearing headphones, only hearing the results later. When I sent one to a mentor of mine, he was quite critical of my approach to play without listening to the space I was working with, and sensed that the music was dislocated from this acoustic reality by virtue of this. This criticism was really teaching for me and I’m very grateful to have received it.
In the dam I have been thinking about this, and how to belong in this environment which is so immensely compelling for its drama and intensity, but so relatively ecologically ‘thin’. Here I am finding a way to tune into resonance and the border between the way my saxophone sounds so dramatically dominate the space, even when soft, and the other beings and agential forces that still distantly or quietly sound there.
In this piece I make sustained ‘blocks’ of circular-breathed, microtonal and multiphonic sound. I work with materials which are superficially similar but have slightly different intonation. The rippling interaction of all of the closely-tuned tones in the space makes overwhelming, blissful results. As the ripples recede and diminish, the ever-present voices of the site peak through.
When two frequencies sound together, one also perceives a frequency equal to the two frequencies added together (combination tone), and another equal to the two frequencies subtracted from one another (difference tones). In some environments these tones are much more intensely audible. There is a beautiful truth revealed by this process: two dyads that are very close to each other in frequency can produce radically different perceptual phenomena. A dyad (two pitches sounded simultaneously)) tuned to C# (1/1) and B (8/9) produces a difference tone of 30.798 – a B, four octaves lower. Flattening the B to a (7/8) – roughly a quarter tone flatter – produces a difference tone of 34.648Hz, the C#. Just a quarter tone difference in the fundamental pitch produces a whole tone difference in the reflection (sometimes the results are even more dramatic).
This phenomenon only gets more fascinating when two dyads ripple against each other in the phenomenal reverb of the dam, where the difference tones between melodically adjacent tones manifest as low-frequency oscillations that modulate everything that is being sounded, including the difference tones from the dyads. It’s just wild.
In between these outbursts, I feel compelled to sit in silence for a while, perhaps thinking about that virtuality for a moment, and how it belongs here in this more prescriptive compositional frame. Or just letting the frogs be in my perception as long as my own tones have.