Writings

 Photo: Victor Hulme

Photo: Victor Hulme

WAVES OF QUALITIES

The world can be defined by territories and perceptions. Gender, roots and religion are related strongly with borders – or perceived borders – that frame the dynamics contained within and the conflicts at its edges. Wherever the borders are challenged, there are inevitably opposing forces – those which welcome expansion and blurring, and those seeking to re-establish the line that has been crossed. Both these forces operate in my work. Driven by that tension, I look to materials that appear in the “in-between” places found in sonic structures and occurring in societies at large; places where ambiguities are glimpsed, identities come and go, and contradictory impulses – performance, play, task, absurdity – operate simultaneously. What appears is a harmony of noises: misappropriations of gesture and consequence; of dry and wet sounds; low and high technology; rough and subtle at once; regular and irregular rhythmic orbits in tandem; materials at once tangled and estranged; hybrids of human, animal, machine; somewhere between unification and resistance.

My works consist of various instrumentations and artistic contexts, including choreography for musicians, composition for dancers, sound installations, and sonic costumes. Each of the works examines the elastic interplay between repetition and resistance thereto. Musical instruments, commercial objects, and discarded industrial materials are treated prehistorically. Their range of physical/sonic properties are observed by the application of a variety of forces, causing ever-changing patterns to perpetually emerge and disintegrate. The residual sounds of choreographed objects/performers and the choreography of the sound-making; their contributions toward and disruptions of one another's domains; the performer's movement and the movement of sound – all are allowed fruition as causal co-contributors, exploring themes such as gravity, puppetry, system failures and illusion.

 

HARMONY OF NOISES

My sound world is strongly influenced by the urban soundscape, the energies and associations in its undercurrents – mechanical and natural forces intertwining.  The architecture of cities, much like online networks, often creates illusions that result in us losing our ability to detect where exactly a specific noise originates and what causes it. The city grid causes tunnels, echoes, reverbs, and kaleidoscopic angles. The denser the city, the more pronounced the disorientation-effect. The denser the city, the more overlapping and diverse the sound qualities it contains.

During travels, I often record the morphing environments. Airport escalators, trains, pipes, carts and new playgrounds, for example, often contain high squeaky notes that repeat with regular and irregular timing, with layers of other pitches accompanying it, sometimes in a microtonal interval or in octaves below and above it. I analyze and explore its mechanisms to understand which parts and movements are responsible for which squeaks, in order to isolate and better understand its qualities.

To me, the subtle changes create a “wave of qualities” whereby sounds and patterns undergo a mutation, ultimately splitting into new threads. Basically, it almost operates like tonal harmony, akin to creating a modulation through a common chord. In this way, hypothetically, a squeak could eventually become a drone, and still have a thread connecting them. Importantly, this does not necessarily develop in a linear way within a piece. Instead, almost like a cubist painting, the material is fragmented and reconstructed from different angles, distances and focal points.

One such wave forms as an airport escalator transforms into a train on a bend, which transforms into a tram, then into swings, children whistling, and ultimately wolves howling. This movement starts with short squeaks and ends with multiple sustained wavy howls.

Another example is traffic strips on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, which shifts into geese quacking in a pen, blending with human chatter. Every car has a different mass and speed, resulting in slightly nuanced “quacks” and an ever-changing pattern.

An example from my piece Holes and Tunnels shows how I incorporate the movement of similar qualities through various instruments or objects along a piece. The process starts from encountering a babbling crowd, where one cannot detect content. Instead, there is a rising and falling of talking intonations (a micro wave of qualities unto itself). This sound is produced by fishing line rubbing a plastic bowl along its rim while plucking its sides. Another material that behaves similarly is a superball mallet being rubbed along piano keys. Next is a saxophone mouthpiece being blown into water while sliding the teeth up and down along the reed. When a specific quality transfers from one instrument to another, each instrument reinterprets the original source whilst also morphing into new threads.

 

TERRITORIES, ENTANGLEMENT AND ILLUSION 

The establishment of a hierarchy is not my concern, although the struggle for one is. Each of the elements in a piece raise associations that both reflect and confront each other, much like I view the Internet as a single organism always updating its search results, or a brain trying to understand itself. In this sense, there are no aspects of a performance that are not wholly part of it.

In my last few pieces - especially the mini opera, .onion – a recurring theme is systems operating under the surface; concealed places from where invisible strings are being pulled, influencing appearances. .onion is set amidst the Deep Web – the unindexed, anonymous and largely unregulated part of the Internet normally hidden from view; a place of masked identities where criminals, activists and law enforcement swap appearances. Not only do you not know who's on the other end – you have no way of knowing whether any of what they offer is real. It is a realm of blurred boundaries and in-between spaces, often depicted as oceanic depths. Personally, I prefer seeing it as reflecting outer space, where links are floating and black holes might gobble you up unexpectedly.

In the context of the opera, the composition, libretto, choreography and design are all part of the same creative process, rather than different aspects or elements that are put together in layers. I feel part of a movement seeking unification of fields that have traditionally been regarded as accessories to one another. The works of composers and artists as diverse as Georges Aperghis, David Helbich, Simon Steen Anderson, Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri, Steven Kazuo Takasugi, Jennifer Walsh, among many others, create blurred boundaries between music and other fields. They are accompanied by a growing collection of individuals and groups whose agenda is the performance of such works. My vision is for the activity on stage to live as a complex single entity. In reality, collaborative work occasionally requires artistic and logistical compromise and flexibility.

When I talk about territories, the first association that comes to mind is social-political classifications, borders, thresholds, and disputes; struggles of control that are both inevitable and cyclical; the ongoing war of perceptions. I see my art as imitating the nature of these events, which is characterized, above all, by ever-changing-ness. Because associations keep changing, there cannot be a fixed consensus, or a defining proof, or emphatic truth. There are simply schools of thoughts swimming in all directions, forever knocked about by the waves and tides. As with politics and life, each piece is in a perpetual state of process.

Entanglement is both an internal and external state of affairs. In my piece To Move You Stay, a few connected threads reeled in from different directions result in a reactionary and involuntary relationship. It creates a knot increasingly transitioning the musical performance into a statue-like momentary installation. Holes and Tunnels is an example of the entanglement in the structure of the composition. As a material starts, it already stops, taken over by another material that might split into another two, when we can suddenly hear the first one again trying to get out, but pushed away by other new materials, and so forth.

During the process of creation, each piece goes through many drafts, through which I learn about the materials. Initially, as I test the range of physical properties by the application of a variety of forces, it is not being thought of in time. I simply observe outcomes that have their own timing, and that timing changes as I discover more about the material and relate others to it. Towards the end of the process, I have developed a deep relationship with each material. Instead of keeping only the final draft, I construct a piece by collecting from all the different stages of my engagement and reconstitute them irregularly. Each part of the process has its own qualities. The linking of qualities in different stages of development is another example of a wave.

Threads and tubes are often used in my work, as I examine and play with their sonic and physical potential in different aspects of territory, entanglement and illusion.

 

PUPPETRY AND ALIENATION

Puppetry is when a gesture takes over. The musical mismatch is initiated by dividing the organs involved with the playing into separate entities, each of which receives a task. The extent to which it relates to a designated outcome varies from piece to piece. The combination of instruments can also become a puppet; separate entities collided into one, changing into new roles and acquiring strings. However, puppetry does not necessarily refer to a master-servant relationship, or, if it is to be seen as one, it might be said that the puppeteer is also the puppet’s puppet. Their relationship is absurd – playful and tense. To me, puppetry is the alienated, unexpected visitor taking us for a moment to their own world.

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My music is an outcome of how I perceive nature, including human nature. Instead of illuminating a certain state of affairs, or defining a specific attribute, each of my pieces are defined by their ever-changing-ness. This is what human nature means to me. It is a perpetual state of process; struggles and contradictions and constant realignment.

Informed by empirical research, I embrace the means of trial and error, both in the compositional process and as preserved in the piece itself. Each piece of mine is the edited result of hours upon hours of footage recorded either in my studio or the many ad hoc music-making spaces arranged during travels. These videos document discoveries and nuanced re-enactments, as well as external disturbances, timelines of personal milestones, realignments, occasional destruction and abandonment of ideas. The purpose of the recording is two-fold: it allows me to examine the sound result and choreography more closely, and serves as a means of communicating instructions contained in the score to any would-be performer.

To me, excitement comes from engineering living encounters that are capable of being experienced differently from one performance to another. In this sense, performers are also asked to operate in the in-between and experience the life contained in the piece. This is the very reason why I record myself performing so many drafts, over and over again. The cumulative experience always has a different energy. These undefinable relationships between performers and objects and outcomes is how the piece remains ever-changing.  This is what I think of as elasticity.  The player should expect a range of possibilities along with pre-determined sounds.

The passages I end up including in the piece are not necessarily the most poignant or sophisticated. I combine parts that are very raw, with parts that contain more knowing, and the range in between. The things that happened during the making and the observing, while waiting and thinking, doubting, frustrated, possibly give rise to comical accidents. The relationship between me and the material creates a new material – an alienated material – that I also use through gestures and creatures, reflecting the story of the composing back from on stage, creating another wave of qualities.

 

                                                                                                                                                           SIVAN COHEN ELIAS                                                                                                                             MAY 2017

 

 

Editor: Reynard Hulme

 
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