Friday, January 5, 2007

A Romantic view of Chernobyl

Recently I read Richard Taruskin’s wonderful book, Defining Russia Musically. In a chapter on Tchaikovsky, Taruskin articulates a distinction between "classical" and "romantic" music in a way I hadn't read before, where classical music is focussed outward and works to please the audience and fulfill its expectations, and romantic music is focussed inward and celebrates the artist's personal and unique subjectivity.  Romantic music leads to the cult of the supreme artist who uses his or her art to change the outlook of his audience (since the audience must often undergo a transformation involving some amount of effort or pain in order to understand the art).  Binary oppositions are always artificial, but this one gives me some food for thought about drones and ambient music.

Danish sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard released his CD 4 Rooms in 2006 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. He recorded silence in four different public spaces near Chernobyl, then played the silence back into the rooms and recorded the results. He performed this operation ten times in each room. His inspiration was Alvin Lucier's I Am Sitting In A Room, but without the initial voice, so he ends up with simply the resonance of the spaces. More details on the work, including pictures of the rooms, can be found here. Like the work of Toshiya Tsunoda and Felix Hess's Air Pressure Fluctuations, Kirkegaard finds hidden aspects of the world and presents them without modification (other than the technology required to make the hidden aspects audible). From a certain perspective, this work shares many characteristics with Ambient music.

Ambient music was originally intended to be ignorable or interesting, depending on the attention that the listener is willing to donate. As such, it falls more on the "classical" side of the duality above, since ambient music enhances the surroundings but does not seek fundamentally to change the listener. There is a whole subset of ambient music known as deep ambient, which is characterized by long, static drone works, suitable for meditation as well as ordinary ambienteering. But what about works like Kirkegaard's? Are we, the listeners, more aware of the world around us because of these recordings? If we listen to the work without knowing the back story, do we miss out on something fundamental? Otherwise, they are merely fairly static drone works; the variations in sound within a single room, beyond slow oscillations and some gradual overtone accumulation, are fairly small. On their own, the four pieces are a bit unsettling, but the required knowledge of the stories leads me tentatively to conclude that these works fall more on the "romantic" side of the dichotomy. The silence near Chernobyl (admittedly much eerier than a “silence” that contains ordinary human activity) is a warning about the silence that could result from a more widespread nuclear proliferation. 4 Rooms tells us that we’d better change, and shows us how our own public spaces will sound if we don’t.