Monday, July 20, 2009

The Tuning of the World

This is my first blog ever so i guess i'll start off by introducing my work. I've been a free-jazz & hip-hop musician for over 10 years now but have more recently developed an interest in sound art. I just graduated from Concordia University's program in Electroacoustic Composition. If you are not familiar with this form of composition, here's my definition of it (mind you nobody has been able to come up with a concrete definition so far):

The arrangement of purely synthesized sounds and/or environmental sounds (that may be processed) into a musical composition. Unlike most Western musical idioms (popular or classical), there is much less of a focus on rhythm, harmony, and melody. Instead most Electroacoustic (EA) compositions attempt to study the textural and timbral properties of sound itself as well as experiment with techniques of diffusing sounds within a listening space.

This is a very general summary of EA music. So for more info I would suggest researching some of the major figures in this field such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Schaeffer, and Iannis Xenakis.
However, its more important to mention why I decided to get involved in Electroacoustic music. It all started when I was finishing up my Electrical Engineering degree at McGill University about 5 years ago. I was taking one of those introduction to classical music courses called "The Art of Listening" (AKA "Clapping for credits" by most McGill-ites). I personally enjoyed the course. But the moment of realization occurred when my prof introduced us to one of the most important and innovative composers of the 20th century, John Cage. In particular, we discussed his most famous piece 4'33 that was composed for any instrument. During the 1952 premiere of this three-movement piece in Woodstock, New York, David Tudor calmly sat down at the piano and opened the sheet score. Cage instructs the musician to play nothing for the entire duration of the piece. To mark the beginning of the piece, Tudor closed the keyboard lid. Some time later he opened it briefly, to mark the end of the first movement. This process was repeated for the second and third movements. Tudor timed the three movements with a stopwatch while turning the pages of the score. The outcome: the audience gasped and almost broke into a riot. However, what Cage was trying to imply is that there is no such thing as silence. Although, no piano notes were being played, one could hear the sounds of the concert hall (people whispering, piano bench squeaking, footsteps leading to the exit of the concert hall etc...). In some performances the front door of the hall would be left open so as to let the traffic sounds outside seep in. Cage wanted his listeners to realize that if we listen carefully to our environment, we realize that all sounds are interesting and unique. It makes us challenge the definition of music. He once questioned, "which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?" For cage, the sound of a kettle whistling has as much musical worth as a legato played on a violin.
Cage performing "Water Walk" in 1960 on popular TV show I've Got A Secret)

4'33' reminds me of Jackson Pollack’s paint-drip works. Even though these paintings are so chaotic that it seems as if nothing is happening – and they might as well be painted black, if you concentrate long enough you will realize that this giant abstract mass actually contains subtle gestures and textures.
What lead Cage to this philosophy? So the story goes...In 1951, he visited the anechoic chamber (a sound-proof room that absorbs all sound made inside it) at Harvard University. He entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but he claimed to have heard two sounds, one high and one low. When he described them to the engineer in charge, he informed him that the high one was his nervous system in operation, the low one his blood in circulation. True, this could have just been caused by a mild case of tinnitus or maybe Cage was finally losing his mind, but I think his message it what matters. To quote him,

"Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music."

So how has all of this affected my sound art? My current artistic research-creation practice is focused on soundscape composition that involves the re-contextualization of man-made or natural sounds within an studio setting. Using a microphone, I am able to perceive the timbral and musical content hidden all around us. My sound-walking technique is primarily influenced by Vancouver’s World Soundscape Project in the 1970s, led by R. Murray Schafer, who researched how sonic environments are being effected by urban development. With the noise pollution of cars and construction plaguing our cities, I find it important to preserve the more fragile and subtle sounds that are nearing extinction. I use software tools (filters, time stretching, pitch shifting) to help isolate and accentuate the field recordings I gather. These sounds are often complemented by purely synthesized sounds that I create in order to form a harmony. In my work, electronic sounds interact organically and "play" along with natural sounds as two musicians would.
This has lead me to to my current project, Tusarnituq: Soundscapes of Nunavik. ("tusarnituq" is the Inuttitut word for "beautiful sound"). I was recently awarded a grant from CALQ (Conseil des arts et lettres du Quebec) to travel to Inukjuak, Nunavik as part of an artist residency. I have been here for a week now and the main objective of my project is to study the Northern soundscape to create a large-scale sound installation that will include natural sounds (Hudson Bay, birds, dogs, insects) and cultural sounds (Inuttitut language, story telling, throat singing). I will also create the Inukjuak Sound Map. This interactive web site will provide a browsable satellite map of Inukjuak on which users can click on different geographical co-ordinates to hear their respective sounds. This idea was largely inspired by the amazing work of my friends and collaborators, Max and Julian Stein, who started up the Montreal Sound Map last year. So for the next month, this blog will focus on my daily perceptions of the seemingly silent environment up here. I'll also try my best to upload some interesting field recordings of Inukjuak on a daily basis.

For now, here is a sample of a soundscape composition I recently created using field recordings gathered in the temples and rainforests of Malaysia and Singapore:
The First Spot of Sunlight


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