Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Listening to the fauna

Michael Prime was one of the founding members of the electronic improvisation group Morphogenesis, one of the few groups who traced their lineage to the live electronic music of Cage, Stockhausen, AMM and MEV instead of the more typical free jazz. Although the group still performs sporadically, Prime has continued a productive improvisational career as a soloist and with other improvisers such as Max Eastley, Jim O'Rourke, Eddie Prévost and Geert Feytons.

Similar to sound artist Francisco Lopez, Prime studied ecology and worked in the field for many years. Not only do field recordings find their way into his music, but he also developed an unusual method of sound production: bioelectrical signals from plants. Even with Morphogenesis, Prime could be seen (and heard) with various plants connected to wires. His solo work includes the album L-Fields where he manipulates bioelectrical signals from various hallucinogenic and psychotropic plants. In addition, he has also worked with ultrasonic recordings, capturing the sounds of fish, insects and bats. He also creates sound installations, one of which was released a few years ago in which live bioelectrical signals were modulated with infra-red motion detectors and eventually, interference from the audience.

His most recent solo work, Borneo, is a two-CD set stemming from a trip to the northernmost part of the island in early 2005. The album is an excellent summation of Prime's various creative activities to date. Several pieces combine bioelectrical plant signals with field recordings from the same area. The piece Insect Strategies combines ultrasonic recordings of various insects, while Hungry Ghosts includings ultrasonic recordings of bats. He even set up sound installations in the jungle and recorded these in combination with the field recordings. Some of the tracks are unadulterated field recordings from forests and markets. The album's opening piece, Year of the Cock, includes snippets from a Chinese New Year celebration, but the piece is a gentle introduction to the set as a whole, saving the bioelectrical sounds for the longer compositions scattered across the album.

The sounds themselves on the album range from the greatest delicacy to massive squalls of sound. The noisiest parts often come from the plant recordings, creating a disjointed image between the ferocious sounds emanating from the most pastoral and tranquil scenes. In this sense, Prime exposes a world that most of us never see or hear, similar in this effort to John Duncan's or Jonathan Coleclough's recordings based on tidal data. But Prime's goal is different in that his bioelectric recordings present real-time sounds from the environment, not data mediated and massaged into audible form. A closer parallel would be shortwave data, which Duncan has also used and which dates back to Morphogenesis (and Cage and Stockhausen before that). Shortwave radio pulls sounds from the radiophonic soup that surrounds us at all times and in all places, an audible reminder that we're never alone. But seldom do we get to hear messages from so foreign and so other a source as plants — although we all know they're alive, to most people they remain part of the inanimate environment.

In one of the most quixotic moves I've ever heard, for a couple of the pieces Prime went through the effort to set up installations in the jungle, which he then "stalked" (his word) with binaural microphones. The accompanying booklet even includes pictures of such installations. The action is reminiscent of the transient works of Andy Goldsworthy, a visual artist who creates ephemeral sculptures from natural materials available at the site, and whose works exist for most of us only through photographs. The paradox emphasizes the hidden nature of the sounds, brought forth by obscure processes on "previously undescribed species" of plants, created by stalking installations that practically nobody was there to hear. Trees falling in the forest indeed.

The packaging for Borneo shows great care and attention to detail. Prime includes a 16-page booklet of text and color photographs, including a short travelogue essay and some notes on each individual piece. Some of the tracks contain index points, and in the booklet the events at each index point are noted. Both CDs and the booklet come in a metal box along with a small envelope of tongkat ali, an Indonesian herbal product that comes with various life-affirming promises. The first hundred copies include a mini-CD containing an additional ultrasonic recording of bats.

Prime's recordings can be difficult to locate. None of them are available on iTunes or emusic, but the CDs are sometimes available from Mimaroglu or other online vendors. Neither Prime nor his label (Mycophile) have web sites, but I obtained my copy of Borneo directly from him.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sunday desert blogging

It snowed in the mountains, but spring is approaching in the desert. Winter has been relatively wet, so we expect a bumper crop of wildflowers. This was about the time we saw the first snowdrops back east, and the desert has corresponding small purple flowers. But this picture of the distant snows with a saguaro skeleton summed up a perfect day.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Three cheers for liner notes!

I've given my opinion before (here and here, for example) that for classical music downloads to be successful, liner notes need to be available. The DGG Web Shop includes PDF files of the CD booklets, and Naxos has liner notes for their CDs available on their web site (unfortunately, still not for any of their affiliated labels). To the wise people running DG and Naxos, let me now add the British label Chandos, whose albums are electronically available from most outlets (Amazon, emusic and iTunes) and who has placed links for "Download Booklet PDF" on the individual album pages. Chandos is an excellent label, with many interesting releases of music old and new. Three cheers for Chandos, and may other classical labels follow suit!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

New directions in musicology?

Kyle Gann has a superb post outlining potential topics for musicologists. It's the text of an endowed musicology lecture and pretty long for a blog post, but very much worth reading in its entirety.

Two points had special resonance. He quotes Leonard B. Meyer's book from 1967, Music, the Arts, and Ideas: Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth-Century Culture as an attempt to understand the present, comparing the plethora of books available in the 1960s and 1970s that described music of the same period to the dearth of books available today that discuss music by living composers. In the 1970s, I had a small shelf of books devoted to Stockhausen, Cage and Boulez, even though none of those composers had even reached the midpoint of their careers at that time. Now, I'm trying to find information on contemporary composers, pretty much without success. Gann discusses this point at length and provides several possible reasons for the knowledge gaps, which I won't duplicate here, but I certainly feel the truth of his argument.

The second point concerns the changing way composers need to promote themselves today. In particular, he mentions six conditions shared by virtually all composers of my generation, which include the relative ease of releasing recordings and the relative difficulty of publishing scores. In my experience, it is extremely difficult to obtain scores for new compositions. Composers are seldom published commercially. Some composers, such as Charles Griffin (whom I've written about before), have scores for sale at their web site. I've also had some success contacting composers for scores via email. But there are others, including some mentioned specifically in Gann's post, who either don't have or don't respond to email, so their scores are totally unavailable. Is this because I'm a nobody in the classical world, and it is extremely unlikely that I will perform these works in public? Does one need a personal introduction to get new music scores? This situation was also much better back in the 1970s, when I wrote to several composers and got unpublished scores for little more than the cost of copying and postage.

I look forward to reading responses to this post on the various musicology blogs. Meanwhile, Professor Gann has been on a roll lately, with wonderful reading on Feldman and a host of other topics. His post on the question and answer period for a group of graduate students sums up the musical dilemma of our time. A welcome voice in the wilderness.

Friday, February 8, 2008

If it's not music, it must be...

The art book publisher Rizzoli recently published a deluxe book by Alan Licht entitled Sound Art. Licht is an improvisational guitarist who has performed with various noise and punk outfits, with a background in film studies and a voracious appetite for different kinds of experimental music. Lavishly illustrated, his new book fits well on the fairly small shelf with other books covering the fringes, as he says in the subtitle, beyond music and between categories.

Since a lot of the CDs in my collection could fall under the sound art rubric, I approached the book with considerable interest. Licht distinguishes music from sound art as an exhibition situation rather than a performance. This definition gives Licht a practical, social context rather than a theoretical one, and a practice for which he can trace a history. Kinetic sound sculptures, such as those created by Jean Dubuffet, led to several noise works from artists not necessarily trained as musicians. But as in so many other aspects of contemporary music, he signals John Cage's recognition of everyday sounds as compositional material as a major turning point. Although Cage himself seldom left the performance space for exhibitions, his colleague David Tudor created several magnificant sound installations, most notably Rainforest, a sonic environment of resonating but otherwise inanimate objects. Licht devotes an extended discussion to the mutual influences of sound and visual artists, centered largely around the two New York Schools.

Sound installations that probe sound's relationship to space become more elaborate, leaving the gallery for outdoor installations, such as Annea Lockwood's piano transplants or Bill Fontana's installations on bridges and ranches. Licht has a whole chapter on environmental installations, which often reads like a catalog of past glories, but composers since World War II have dealt with spatialization for more strictly musical works. Licht mentions several electronic composers, including Stockhausen and Xenakis, but I see a parallel in the purely musical efforts of orchestral composers who use innovative placement of the musicians to explore the relationship between music and space (including not only Stockhausen and Xenakis, but Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu). Some sound artists combine installations with performance, such as long string installation artists Ellen Fullman or Paul Panhuysen. Alvin Lucier has several pieces like this, such as his most famous I Am Sitting In A Room, Music for Solo Performer, which uses brain waves, or Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas, which explores interference tones between sine wave generators and sustained notes played on instruments.

Sound art as a gallery phenomenon is somewhat mixed. The best is represented by a work like Janet Cardiff's 40 Piece Motet (which Licht discusses), where she recorded each member of a forty-person choir performing a work by Thomas Tallis. I've been fortunate enough to experience this work, at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. It defies reduction to a two-channel home variant. The installation has forty speakers in a circle facing inward, and each speaker accounts for one singer. One can stand in the center of the installation and hear the voices all around, or one can stand next to a couple of speakers and hear their individual voices. Cardiff also recorded some of the chatter that precedes a performance, so one can hear small bits of conversation between two adjacent singers, just as if one were in the midst of the choir. It's a remarkable work. For another example, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I saw an installation by Olivia Block, where she arranged cymbals and water beakers so that the water slowly dripped onto the cymbals. It was a very delicate work, combining sound with kinetics, again, impossible to experience at home. Unfortunately, too many gallery sound art exhibitions rely on headphones attached to the wall. At the Whitney Biennial in 2002, one could find these headphones in the middle of a huge room of a dizzying array of video, painting and static sculptures, and the effect was completely lost. (There was also a dedicated sound room, which more than made up the difference.) Even in a quiet gallery, who wants to put on headphones and listen to a fifteen minute piece? Thanks, but I'd rather put on the CD at home.

Perhaps because a successful installation is such a unique event and cannot be sold to a collector, many sound artists release their work on CDs, often with mixed artistic success. Licht includes a CD with the book (with appropriate disclaimers), covering a representative spectrum from installations by Bill Fontana and Bernhard Gal, a sound sculpture by Jean Dubuffet, a noisy performance by Destroy All Monsters, a version of Lucier's Still and Moving Lines... for electric guitar, and a headphone installation piece by Steve Roden. In addition to the text, there is also a biographical section for major sound artists, arranged chronologically from Harry Bertoia to Steve Roden.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Thanos Chrysakis — Klage

Furthernoise.org has published a review of a recent CD by London-based sound artist Thanos Chrysakis.