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The Violin, The River, and Me: Artistic Research and Environmental Epistemology in balancing string and Devil's Water 1, Two Recent Environmental Sound Art Projects.

 

Bennett Hogg

 

Introduction

Since at least 1967, when Luc Ferrari began work on his Presque Rien, the sonic arts, widely defined, have engaged with environmental sound. Until relatively recently the majority of practices that concerned themselves with the environment tended to take two principal forms, sound sculptures or soundscape "compositions" (including various forms of soundwalk, insofar as many of these are organised journeys through an environment, or its surrogate in recorded form, rather than individualised sonic dérives). Soundscape composition covers an enormous range of practices, from the relatively unprocessed recordings of Luc Ferrari, John Levack Drever, Peter Cusack, and Jez Riley French, through to pieces in which environmental sounds are subject to more explicit authorial intervention, the work of, among others, Hildegard Westerkamp, Barry Truax, Denis Smalley, and Hans Tutschku spring to mind. Though all of these artists are in a sense "present" in their works - through the creative decisions they have taken, and through their individual and idiosyncratic listenings - their relationship to the actual sounding of the sounds is often distanced, particularly when compared with other musical practices. Compare, for example, the very human, physical traces in Smalley's Ringing Down the Sun (which arguably has an environmental dimension) with his earlier, more explicitly "soundscape" piece Empty Vessels. In the former human gesture is a structural aspect of the composition, whereas in the latter human gesture is almost completely absent (unless flying an airliner over London counts as human gesture). Westerkamp's voice-over in her Kits Beach Soundwalk seems to indicate her presence in the music, yet it has the explicit (and paradoxical) effect of taking us "far away" (her words) from the original soundscape. Even when she seems to be "in" the soundscape of Kits Beach at the beginning of the piece her voice is not actually "there", and as author she has no direct effect on the sounds as they exist in their place of origin, before they come into the studio. Though there is a human presence in her A Walk Through the City, with its field recordings of drunks, children, and the voice of the poet, Westerkamp herself seems to make no sound at all. This "hands-off ears-on" approach of soundscape composition, exemplified in these works by Smalley and Westerkamp, seems enough of a typical situation that we encounter over and over in the related fields of acoustic ecology and soundscape composition that we might even say it is paradigmatic; this is a conception of the soundscape that only includes the artist as a position from which to listen, a listening that is attentive and conducted, on the part of the artist, in silence.

More recently groups such as Team Sports (1), individuals like John Grzinich (2), Jon Rose (3), Richard Skelton (4), and Max Eastley (5), and members of "Landscape Quartet" (of which I am a member along with Sabine Vogel, Matt Sansom, and Stefan Ostersjo) (6) have sought ways of doing acoustic ecology, or of working with soundscape, through being "in" it in more explicitly present ways. Others, such as Lee Patterson (7) and James Wyness (8), use field recordings to creatively worry away at the boundaries between environmental sound, more or less autonomously sounding objects (burning peanuts, effervescent liquids, bridges, animals), and various technologically mediated forms of improvisation. Such an active, sounding relation to the environment seems to draw more on the practices of Richard Long, Hamish Fulton, Andy Goldsworthy, and other artists whose work takes place in a natural environment, than it does to the acousmatic tradition of soundscape composition and field recording per se. What all of these practitioners do, whether consciously or not, is participate in what I see as a broader set of cultural practices in which the imperial power of "the human" over the rest of the world is shifting in favour of what we might call a more ecosystemic engagement. In this paper I hope to go into more depth as to what I mean by an ecosystemic engagement, and to present some creative projects that I am involved in that I believe contribute to this subtle but definite shift in artistic consciousness. This boils down to what may be a rather facile slogan, but one that in spite of its limitations says, in a nutshell, how I understand this shift: Participation not Representation. I'm going to talk about the philosophical and epistemological implications of representation as it has been generally understood in modern Western culture, introduce some of the recent voices that are critical of these implications such as Tim Morton and Salome Voegelin, go on to investigate "traditional" approaches to soundscape composition and acoustic ecology to uncover the extent to which they continue and sustain the cultural logic of representation, and finally to offer some alternative practices and ideas that are arguably closer to the spirit of ecosystems and to the specifics of sound, environment (9), and aural perception.

 

Representation

Representation is so ubiquitous in our culture that we are rarely aware that what we engage with are representations, and this, of course, presents dangers that, in common with all ideologically determined/determining forms, is mostly invisible (Eagleton, 2007). A representation comes to stand in for the thing, it seems on the surface of things to be continuous with and indistinguishable from the thing, and thereby obfuscates the fact that what we engage with is discourse and not the thing. "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" seems at first like nothing more than a willful surrealist absurdity, a puerile joke joke, perhaps, given that what we see is patently a pipe; yet beyond this lies a critique of the epistemological ramifications of representation: it represents a pipe, but actually it's a painting.(10) The term representation carries many diverse yet related meanings (11), and it is arguable that the paradox of representation's ubiquity and invisbility lies in its polysemous nature. Given the multiplicity of different uses of the term, it seems sensible not to try to define representation – this would limit the significance of the depth and nuance of the term - but to critically foreground those historical and philosophical aspects of representation's multiple forms that are most direcly applicable to the arguments that follow.

Varela has argued that within the cognitivist paradigm of human consciousness knowledge consists in the translation of sense data into "internal representations", a position that more recent theories of consciousness have strongly challenged (Gibson, Varela, Lakoff and Johnson). These more recent theories tend to move away from the representation model of consciousness into something more integrated, embodied, multisensory, and connected. The "absence" occasioned by representation "standing in" for the original is itself abolished in a philosophical move that refuses a radical difference between human consciousness and the rest of reality. Cognitive science and phenomenology – particularly the thinking of Merleau-Ponty – have played a highly significant role in this reassessment of consciousness. More recently still, Graham Harman's "object-oriented philosophy" and Jane Bennett's notion of "thingness" have, from very different perspectives, questioned the epistemic and ontological status of "the object", further eroding the humanist sureties on which knowledge has been grounded since the Enlightenment (Harman, 2010; Bennett, 2010). To take a random, even absurd, example, the line in the Stephen Foster song "Camptown Races" that says "Camptown racetrack five miles long" tells us nothing about the plants that the horses trample over or run past, its situation in a landscape, its history; it excludes everything that is not related to the instrumentalisation of the racetrack as a distance that horses run. As a "representation" of the Camptown racetrack it reduces it to a sporting function and denies its existence as a place and as an ecosystem. This is what representation does. In addressing what he calls "ecomimesis", the literary conceit that a certain type of first-person description of the environment ("As I sit here listening to the breeze wafting the scent and sound of the pines through my half-opened window..."), Tim Morton notes the unattainable "escape velocity" from language – that no matter how evocative or descriptive it may be, however much it tries to evoke a present reality, language remains language. From this he builds a strong critique of ecomimetic writing as a cultural form of representation that strives to conceal the fact that it is representation.(12)

When ecomimesis renders an environment, it is implicitly saying: 'This environment is real; do not think that there is an aesthetic framework here'. All signals that we are in a constructed realm have been minimized (Morton 2007, 35).

Representation, insofar as it has contributed to and shaped epistemology, has been strongly figured in post-Enlightenment Western culture as a report on reality. It is only relatively recently that more critical understandings of representation – such as Morton's - have expanded their currency and significance, seeing representation as one of the elements by which we culturally construct that reality. One of the ideologically-blind attributes of representation is its "othering" of Nature; it puts Nature "over there", at a safe distance from "the human", from where we can keep a careful eye on it. Such an "othering" is one of the primary tools by which – at a number of different cultural and epistemological registers - the potentially destructive and non-ecosystemic division between humans and the rest of Nature is maintained. These registers include hierarchical classificatory systems, aesthetics (13), the radically culturalist turn in post-structuralism, language, evolutionary theories, and religion, inter alia, and through deploying representation as an instrument in the service of these different systems we order and control the world. As Varela has noted, representation in this "strong sense" carries "quite heavy ontological and epistemological commitments" (Varela et al., p. 135).

None of this, of course, means that we can avoid representation, that the deploying of representation automatically confers any inherently negative value-judgement, or that its avoidance does any inherently critical work. Any of these claims would be overly reductive, but it does indicate that representation is not "innocent", and a non-critical acquiescence to the logic of representation allows many received understandings to rest unchallenged. Where Nature, and the natural environment are concerned, it must be abundantly clear to anyone that a major part of our ecological crisis right now can be attributed to a culture in which the superiority of humans, the primacy of their particular interests, their entitlement to exploit the planet for their own ends, have gone unchallenged for centuries. One of the stronger roots of this situation lies in the notion that the environment and Nature are "other", something in which, as I have already suggested, representation plays a major role . Tim Morton argues – in my view persuasively – that the idea of environment (which is a word, a representation) is itself part of the problem:

The word environment still haunts us, because in a society that took care of its surroundings in a more comprehensive sense, our idea of environment would have withered away. . . . Society would be so involved in taking care of 'it' that it would no longer be a case of some 'thing' that surrounds us, that environs us and differs from us. . . . In a society that fully acknowledged that we were always already involved in our world, there would be no need to point it out" (Morton 2007, 141, italics in original).

 


Landscape

One of the central representations of the environment in Western culture is through the idea of landscape; the fact that sonic art that uses environmental sound is often referred to as soundscape, a term derived from landscape by R. Murray Schafer (Schafer, 1994), simply serves to underline the centrality of landscape as a representation through which we think of the environment. To examine the extent to which the logic of representation is inherent to the idea of the soundscape, and bring it under critique, it will be productive to first of all outline a critical approach to landscape, and then to investigate how these critiques might serve in the formation of a critical understanding of soundscape (though, as will become clear, it is more complex than simply establishing and then mapping one set of critiques (landscape) onto another field of activity (soundscape)). Landscape is a representation, but there are many different registers at which it represents, as noted earlier. For Cosgrove, in his seminal work examining the ideological ground of "the landscape idea", landscape is not simply a thing, but "a way of seeing the world". Through a critical evaluation of the origins of the landscape idea, and its cultural deployment, it is possible to "discover its links to broader historical structures and processes and . . . to locate landscape study within a progressive debate about society and culture" (Cosgrove, 1985, p. 15). Earliest uses of the term implied that landscape referred not only to a geographically defined area, or a picturesque view, but to the collectivity of the people living in it, something defined socially and culturally as well as physically. We need only think of England as "the land of the Angles", or Wales by the French "Pays de Galles", to see concrete traces of this. By the later middle ages and renaissance, however, in art at least, landscape had become the thing people lived in, quite literally the background to their dwelling. Paintings of "Figures in a Landscape" situate the figures in a landscape, they are not a part of it. The proliferation of landscape as a pictorial genre from the eighteenth century goes hand in hand with notions of private property (14) and nationalism (15), the picturesque (the commodification of "the view" related to the emergence of tourism as an economic force) (16), and the framing of parts of the world into discrete entities, something refered to by Heidegger as "the World-as-Picture" (17). There can be little doubt that the representation of landscape in visual art is a participating force in the establishing and maintaining of these political and ideological tropes.

The very pictorial mode by which landscape is represented, though, also carries ideological material. Perspective may seem to present a report on reality, such that three-dimensional space is represented in two dimensions, but it is itself a representation, a convention established at a particular historical moment (Jay, 1993). Perspective makes possible a single, authoritative viewpoint onto a scene, where the artist vanishes leaving an empty space into which the viewer can step to enjoy this ultimate and privileged view point. As Causey argues, this "rule of the eye" through perspective indicates a control over and an objectification of the landscape (Causey, 2006, p. 146), a vicarious mastery. The apparent imutability of the landscape (Cosgrove, 1985, p. 16), as well as its ordering (through the choice of viewpoint and composition of the painting), and its susceptibility to the framing logic of visual perspective, seems to predispose landscape as eminently suitable for representation. This idea of the imutability of the landscape also works against any understanding of the landscape as a dynamic and transitional space, and in this ideological tangle of Nature, place, economics, property, epistemology, and artistic technique, this supposed imutability strongly mitigates against an ecosystemic understanding of landscape, an understanding that might have gone some way to ameliorate the worst ideological excesses of the traditional landscape idea.

 

Soundscape

Pierre Schaeffer's theorisation of the objet sonore arrived at through reduced listening in an acousmatic listening situation, throws a phenomenological slant onto sonic perception in which representation's hold is momentarily weakened. The sound in musique concrète should be heard for its own qualities, not for what it represents. As LaBelle points out, this puts Schaeffer at one end of a continuum of sonic arts theorists which has R Murray Schafer on its opposite end. Schafer, as LaBelle argues, is concerned with sound as representation of both a place and of an ideology that values the hi-fi soundscape over the lo-fi (in the specific senses of hi- and lo-fi as defined by Schafer) (LaBelle, 2007). Although the aesthetic in Western culture cannot be restricted to the visual per se, it nevertheless seems to be organised according to a kind of objectification that is more characteristic of the visual than the auditory. Denis Cosgrove underlines this when he writes that "To speak of landscape beauty or quality is to adopt the role of observer rather than participant" (Cosgrove 1985, 18), and though Schafer's valorization of the hi-fi soundscape is avowedly in the interest of connectivity, there is also a strongly aestheticising tendency in his ideas that depends on a high degree of detachment, too; any aestheticisation of landscape is going to be grounded in a high degree of objectification and distancing. Tim Morton writes that "The aesthetic is . . . a product of distance: of human beings from nature, of subjects from objects, of mind from matter. Is it not rather suspiciously anti-ecological?" (Morton 2007, 24).

When we listen to music, or to much sound art, it is arguable that our listening and our aesthetic needs are strongly overwritten with the logic of the visual. The public concert, arising during the early 18th Century, a period of intense commodification in European culture, quickly becomes conventionalised into a specular form. The source of the music is from the front, usually framed like a window or painting by some form of proscenium, and socially organised through rows of listeners facing the same direction. We ordinarily hear sound from all directions, but our vision is strongly directed. The visually-organised listening instituted by the public concert is a far cry from social dancing to music, or the sort of domestic musicking evidenced by table books and in paintings. By the nineteenth century the ideal art music audience sits still and is silent, directing their listening forwards, attending to the source of the sounds, in order to absorb the masterworks of romantic genius. This attitude to listening is historically contingent (compare it with eighteenth-century Tafelmusik, or a contemporary pub gig), and also culturally so (the listening to a concert of Beethoven in 1890 would be very different, for example, to cabaret or music hall listening of the same period). In the twentieth century, in an instance of what Foucault might call the "swarming of disciplinarity" (Foucault, 1991) this essentially specular, bourgeois organisation of the sonic is repeated in stereophony, the dominant modality of music recording and listening of the last fifty years, in which paired loudspeakers reproduce the framed, sonic proscenium of the concert. The notion of directed and attentive listening per se, then, when it is deployed for aesthetic purposes – conducted in silence by an unmoving body – repeats this specular organisation and sidelines those aspects of the aural that are incompatible with a specular, distancing, objectifying epistemology.

Concert listening, stereophony, and what I have argued is the visually-structured nature of "attentive" listening in general can be understood as attributes of a cultural logic of the aesthetic that is also organised by separation and objectification, a visually-organised distancing which finds its most acute form in the concert, and which is continued into the framed stereo field that represents an ideal form of listening to recorded music and sound. The dominance of this modality is achieved through a deep culturally constructed set of ideas in which the visual is conceived as being more autonomous, less "involved", and thereby more objectifying, than the other senses. An intersensorial and embodied experience is distrusted by traditional scientific method (that requires subjectivity to be kept out of objective scientific "facts"), in part because of the extent to which emotion and subjectivity are explicitly engaged; the potential for a participatory, phenomenological engagement with the world as it might be organised along auditory principles is marginalised. (18)

Voegelin, for example, notes that seeing "always happens in a meta-position", but hearing does not;

there is no place where I am not simultaneous with the heard. . . . a philosophy of sound art must have at its core the principle of sharing time and space with the object or event under consideration. It is a philosophical project that necessitates an involved participation, rather than enables a detached viewing position (Voegelin 2010, xii). . . . the auditory is generated in the listening practice" (Voegelin, 2010, p. 5).

 

Rather than being distanced and objectified, then, listening and sound offer, for Voegelin, a serious phenomenological alternative to the dominance of the visual.

Merleau-Ponty talks about his world of perception in visual terms. The sensibility of his perception however is not that of vision. . . . it is sonic perception, which is free of the visual stranglehold on knowledge and experience. Sound does not describe [an already existent thing] but produces the object/phenomenon under consideration. It shares nothing of the totalizing ability of the visual. . . . The sonic reality is intersubjective in that it does not exist without my being in it and I in turn only exist in my complicity with it (Voegelin, 2010, p.10). . . . Objectivity and subjectivity are partners rather than adversaries in such a conception . . . constituted through each other without abandoning their own purpose" (Voegelin, 2010, p. 15).

 

We are implicit in our own sound worlds; we generate sound as well as perceiving it, and we therefore hear ourselves in the world in a way that we generally do not see ourselves. This hearing-of-ourselves is one way in which we concretise our involvement with and participation in our world. The silent, non-participative, uni-directional attention of concert listening, and its derivatives, is in fact quite untypical of how we normally perceive and behave towards sound. Listening, in our normal mode of perception, engenders bodily reaction – we jump at a loud sound, tap our feet in rhythm, turn to look because of something heard behind us. From the position of aurality our senses are intermodal, not separated out, and very closely imbricated with touch, sight, movement, and muscular reaction. Though in a balanced epistemology vision and hearing complement one another, an over-dominance of visuality risks leaving little to the sonic that is of the sonic.

If it is in the nature of the sonic to be multidirectional and participative, to engender community, to "touch at a distance" (Schafer, 1994), and to encourage an intersenoriality (as I have so far suggested), framing sounds within a stereo frame to be listened to under concert conditions seems something of a betrayal of sound's potentially ecosystemic properties. The ideological and epistemological implications of landscape – run through with representation and politics – are uncritically taken as given, and the suitability of claiming some degree of homology between landscape and soundscapes remains uninterrogated. Perhaps more significant, though, is the way that the silent, still, and attentive listening that derives from the concert, an institution that we must not forget has worked ceaselessly in the interests of commerce and the objectification of the art work to exclude the environment, is also taken for granted. Should an ecosystemic listening not also include the listener as more than a supposedly neutral point from which to listen? Isn't the still, silent listener that is the implicit subject of acoustic ecology fulfilling the same distancing role that the invisible, self-erasing artist does in relation to seeing a picture? Given that the listener produces sound, reacts to sound, and thereby becomes part of the sound environment, shouldn't we hear the listener interacting with the environment if it is an ecosystemic sound art we are after?

 

Richard Long, A Line Made by Walking, 1967. Linked from http://www.richardlong.org/Sculptures/2011sculptures/linewalking.html

 

Since Richard Long did his first walk in 1967 activity in the environment can be art, whether it is witnessed or not. "The knowledge of my actions in whatever form, is the art. My art is the essence of my experience, not a representation of it" (Long, 2007, p. 26). Though Long documents his walks with photographs, and in writing, and leaves sculptural rearrangements of environmental matter behind him on occasion, the essence of what he does is in what he does, not what is made from it; there is no aestheticising distance between the art and the experience, and the art cannot be exhausted through representation. Though documentation and objects have value insofar as they are parts of an art practice, the weight is shifted away from an art practice in which ultimate value lies in the object produced – the totalizing logic of the visually determined object, let's say - in favour of one in which the artist's experience comes to ground the value of the practice. In a commodifying and objectifying culture such as ours, there is something radical in Long's attitude. "Even today, in a visual culture long accustomed to art being made from any material whatsoever, including pre-existing objects, there is something about a sculpture being made out of a walk which still challenges some deeply held assumptions" (Moorhouse, 2002, p. 32). These challenges are directed in particular against the representation of an object offered for public consumption, preferring instead that the artist enters into relations with the object in a practice where the art is "filled up", so to speak, with this relation, not alienated into objects circulating in an "art world". (19)

Shifts in the artistic understanding of landscape away from a single, vanishing-point perspective representing how the world is "supposed" to be (Johnson 1996, p. 9) towards an experiential, temporalized, and participative understanding then, maps more convincingly onto a particularly sonic organisation, where the sonic, in this sense, is culturally not as distanced from the intersensorial as the visual tends to be. It seems unsurprising, then, that the so-called "emancipation of noise" from the earlier half of the twentieth century (Rusollo, Varese, Cage) that allowed "non-musical" sounds into music should encounter the emergence of Land Art at the same moment in which an intensification of the environmental movement was taking place (Rachael Carson's Silent Spring was published in 1962 and was a key trigger of this intensification) to give birth to acoustic ecology. And yet something gets missed in the process. Notwithstanding the enormously positive work that acoustic ecology and soundscape composition have done in terms of environmental advocacy and raising consciousness of the environment, as well as in the colossal transformative power they have had over the aesthetics of music and sonic art, much acoustic ecology/soundscape remains transfixed by the logic of representation and under the dominance of the specular. Although acoustic ecology is concerned with the sonic and the environmental, its practices continue to exclude precisely those aspects of the sonic that the specular organisation of attentive concert listening has traditionally excluded, and vigorously maintain the distancing, the "suspiciously anti-ecological", logic of representation.

Stereo, like perspective, is a convention, a representation, not a direct relay from reality. Surround-sound only intensifies the illusion, and actually does very little to really address the epistemological and ideological issues which, as I am arguing, are more to do with how the listener/maker relates to the sonically specific attributes of the environment, not with how many different directions those sounds come from, or how closely the ultimate effect approximates to an environmental sound experience. The issues revolve not around spatialisation but participation, not the sound's directional motion but the muscular involvement of the listener/maker, and they are addressed by resisting at every possible register the split between subject and object, culture and nature, splits that are played out in representation over and over again. A perfect recording of a forest in thirty-two channels distributed on the same number of loudspeakers might be able to reproduce the experience of being in the forest very closely, but it would still be an objectification, a representation, a function of a listening subject who remains silent and attentive, not a listener who is a constitutive part of the soundscape they experience. If something is to be truly sonic and ecosystemic, soundscape or acoustic ecology, it cannot conceal the presence of the artist. Mike Pearson, for example states that "Landscape is part of us, just as we are part of it . . . But this embodiment is not inscription but rather incorporation. Landscape has no pre-existing form that is then inscribed with human activity: both being and environment are mutually emergent; continuously brought into being together" (Pearson, 2006, p.12). This is congruent with Voegelin's situating of the listener, the "aesthetic subject in sound",

in the midst of [sound's] materiality, complicit with its production. The sounds of his footsteps are part of the auditory city he produces in his movements through it. His subject position is different from the viewing self, whose body is at a distance from the seen. The listener is entwined with the heard. His sense of the world and of himself is constituted in this bond (Voegelin, 2010, p.5).

There is much in this that resonates with my own experience of making environmenal sound art, and with the work of those sound artists that I see as not conforming to the traditional ideas and practices of soundscape composition that I mentioned earlier in this paper.

 

River projects – Resonant Pathways (20)

Like many environmental artists and acoustic ecologists, my childhood was spent in the country, and like many of them my way into environmental sound art was through my distress at the destruction of natural environments in the name of "progress". There is something immediate and active about traditional acoustic ecology, a desire to save from destruction things that are threatened by human activity, an empathy with plants and animals poisoned or driven out by industry, a mourning of the passing of sounds and places associated with childhood, and something like a sense of acoustic belonging somewhere that we are loath to renounce. But I suggest that there are also unconscious motivations for how we undertake acoustic ecology/soundscape composition that are derived from our cultural conditioning, and which may in fact get in the way of developing a more "ecosystemic" acoustic ecology, a more specifically "sonic" soundscape.

Making a recording of an environment stages a concert-type listening; a silent and unmoving listener stands as the point of contact with sound. As musicians in non-concert environments we find ourselves somewhere that is noisy and unpredictable, one which, in terms of concert listening, is constantly at risk of interruption, or which at any moment might force a change of attention on us. Faced with this dynamic and inconstant environment we step back because it does not offer us the control that we expect for "musical" listening. To perform under such conditions would mean renouncing mastery over the sound environment, and so we recapture that control through a distancing and attentive, silent listening, in the form of audio recordings, that turns a heterogenous and self-determining phenomenon into "music". This is Cage's strategy, and Douglas Kahn's critique of Cage is particularly relevant to what I am trying to say here (Kahn, 1997, 2001). This standing back from the environment repeats the kind of framing effect associated with landscape. By not "doing" music in the environment, we also sidestep the problem of being interrupted, of having to deal with sounds that are extraneous to our authorial intent, and this avoidance strategy preserves a kind of human autonomy in relation to environmental sound recordings because authorship and control are not fundamentally challenged. Yet it is through being so fundamentally challenged that we stand a chance of moving beyond the conditions in which Nature is always "over there", and through which we might become capable of an ecosystemic, involved, and participative relationship with it, not one that holds it at a distance, denies our part in it and it in us as individuals and societies, and sustains the conditions of possibility for a destructive, exploitative dominance over it.

It comes as no surprise, then, that many of the recent generation of sound artists who are moving beyond the traditional soundscape idea are also improvisers. An improviser is never completely sure what is going to happen next, and gets used to interpreting and incorporating the unexpected; many, in fact, actively seek it out and cultivate it.(21) For myself, the realisation that an environmental – and therefore ecosystemic – sound art that would "feel right" for me would need to include myself as a sounding subject went a long way to explain my dissatisfaction with my own previous attempts at environmental sound art, all of which had taken an acousmatic, electroacoustic form. The problem came down to representation, and the related cognitive division between self and world, subject and object. As a composer, I was listening like the member of an audience, not like an improviser – both are forms of attentive listening, but the former attends in silence, the latter through sounding. Rather than bringing home pristine lumps of the world in the form of environmental sound recordings I needed to be going out into it with my knowledge, skills, ideas, and technologies, improvising with the world, being a part of it, not collecting abstractions destined only to be used in representations. It was during an experiment floating my violin on a river, and listening to it through microphones placed inside the violin's body, that I learned that for me an ecosystemic art needs to be participative, inclusive, and involved. Making environmental sound art is a process of learning through negotiation and participation rather than searching for something already "out there" that "needs" to be represented. It relies on listening like an improviser not someone in the audience at a concert who is unecosystemically separated from the sound world by cultural practices that are in thrall to an aesthetics that always already distances the object from the subject.

The experiment in which I floated a violin on a river arose from exploring the different ways in which a violin might carry, alongside its obvious cultural connotations, something of its origins as a tree. In this I was continuing with an idea that had informed some of my earlier atempts at an environmental sound art, attempts that, as I have just noted, were flawed through their reliance on representing the environment. This idea was that violins used to be trees. There was also something in this of seeing what happened when I looked at the violin as simply a wooden object, and it was actually my wife's suggestion that I should see if it would float. It did. What was most striking at first was simply the sound, the bright rippling of water against the violin body, captured from inside the instrument, blended with the violin's sonic signature – its microacoustic internal space - and the faint resonance of the strings colouring the sound as they resonated in sympathy with the water sounds (see balancing string later). More striking still, though, was the responsiveness of the violin to the river itself, and to my interactions with it. I had tied a long piece of string to the tailpiece of the violin, around which I had then attached two XLR cables, connected to two DPA microphones which were secured with Blu-Tack inside the body of the instrument. The microphones sent their signals to a Zoom H4 hand-held recorder which I monitored through headphones.

 

 

This allowed me to pull the violin against the flow of the water, but almost instantly I realised that the sound I was hearing over the headphones depended upon where in the river I directed the violin to, and how much effort I put into dragging the violin. This experience, which brought listening, muscular effort, and motion into play, was reminiscent of nothing so much as bowing; the movement is fluid but with a sense of resistance too, and quite an extraordinary sense of interaction and involvement becomes apparent, the slightest movementnon my part registering immediately in the sound coming from the violin. There are three main states of interaction with the river; holding the violin steady and hearing the incidental details of the water flowing around and over it; pulling the violin against the current, in which case there is a remarkable degree of control to be had over the intensity and density of sonic events; allowing the violin to float at its own speed on a slack cord, which, in the absence of any resistance between violin and river is near to silence. The violin quickly and intuitively became an instrument for exploring river, for knowing it in its dynamic and ever-changing nature, not objectively but experientially; the different currents, different depths of water, waves lifting the body and scooping out spaces below it (giving a sudden surprisingly deep resonance), turbulence, all affect the sound generated. In a matter of minutes I had figured out the different sonic affordances the river had to offer, but the river does not remain constant, it swerves around the violin, the violin itself diverts the current, the whole thing shape-shifting, intertwining, and drawing me into a spontaneous improvisation, through the violin, with the river. This is not a knowing that can be "known" in any fixed sense, but a mode of interacting with the river that nevertheless must always be improvised because the river is in a state of constant flux.

 

(Video clip of improvisation with violin in River Peverill, Greystoke, Cumbria, 2011.)

 

It is more or less impossible to convey in words the sense of involvement and exhilaration of standing barefoot in a river, being absorbed in the sounds coming from the environment and from inside the floating violin, and feeling the intensity of the connections between touch, muscular action, sound, and sight. For me, this is the "real" work, just as for Long the art is in the "essence of my experience, not a representation of it", and yet I need to caution here against any sense of "purism". Sometimes that "essence of my experience" is enough, but it is only accessible to the person doing it – which is usually me - and when I document this experience the simple fact of recording it changes its status from environmental action to recorded object. Not to acknowledge this would be to repeat the ideological blindness (or deafness?) we encounter in representation, and I have used recordings of the sounds and images generated through environmemtally-situated and environmentally-dialogic action in installation pieces and in acousmatic electroacoustic compositions. balancing string, for example, is made from edits from three different improvisations in the River Peverill, near Penrith in Cumbria, superimposed and mixed.

 

 

There is, though, an ideological and epistemological world of difference between silently sitting and recording "the environment", and participating in the sonic environment through improvising with it; placing oneself into it as a dynamic participant, rather than as an observer. There is inevitably representation in play in recordings such as these, but what is represented is human and environment interacting, not the environment alone. In visual terms, this is a relation to the world that is maybe closer to gardening than to photography!

Taking the bowing metaphor further, I found that submerging the neck of a violin into the river would make it possible that the passing water would "bow" the strings, as it were, like the aquatic equivalent of an aeolian harp (I later discovered that Max Eastley had used this phenomenon in his hydrophone, featured on his and David Toop's album New and Rediscovered Musical Instruments from 1975).

 

 

The nuancing of the possible interaction is different in this situation because there is a relationship between string tension and speed of current; a gentle current might not have the energy needed to sound strings at a high tension, and a very strong current causes slacker strings to generate extremely intense overtones. It becomes possible, therefore, to tune the violin strings differently for different rivers, and for different conditions in the same river (a river is not just an "internally" dynamic system, it changes depth and speed in reaction to the weather and the time of year). I made a series of recordings of improvisations using two violins simultaneously, tuned differently to one another to extend the sonic possibilities, in a tributary of the River Tyne in Northumberland called Devil's Water. On occasion during these recordings I found myself "chasing" a particular sound, even though that sound was not actually there but was being made through the interaction of the river, the violin, and myself. The following piece, which I call simply Devil's Water 1, consists of two unprocessed recordings of these improvisations edited together, though with some subtle on-site amplification something like this can be presented live as a site-specific performance.

 

 

The Cornish painter Peter Lanyon expressed the desire to be not "a fixed point within, or distinguished from, the landscape" and he "rejected the hitherto paradigmatic single viewpoint in favour of a multi-directional, experiential depiction of a place" (Stephens, 2000, p. 19), a position that stands somewhat critically against the conventions through which landscape, and the environment, have been traditionally represented. He talks of how his paintings use "landscape experience as a source" but that they are concerned "with environment rather than view, and with air rather than sky" (Stephens, 2000, p. 18). If we wish to pursue an acoustic ecology that is ecosystemic, and a soundscape that is sonic, we cannot only represent ourselves by an invisible and inaudible "hearpoint" – a microphone pointed at the world. There is no doubt something paradoxical about an environmentalism that seems to put so much emphasis on the human subject, but it is precisely his human subject that needs to be reconfigured and rethought if a sustainable ecology is ever to be possible. As Morton puts it,

Picking up the vibrations of a material universe and recording them with high fidelity – inevitably ignores the subject, and thus cannot fully come to terms with an ecology that may manifest itself in beings who are also persons – including, perhaps, those other beings we designate as animals (Morton, 2007, p.4).

 

 

 

 


NOTES

(1) ^ http://www.bangthebore.org/archives/3498

(2) ^ http://maaheli.ee/main

(3) ^ http://www.jonroseweb.com

(4) ^ http://aeolian.bandcamp.com, http://www.corbelstonepress.com/about.htm

(5) ^ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Eastley, http://www.capefarewell.com/people/arts/max-­‐eastley.html, http://www.sonicartresearch.co.uk/practitioners/max-­‐eastleys-­‐aeolian-­‐devices-­‐at-­‐ raven-­‐row

(6) ^ An artistic research project funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, Aug 2012-­‐Feb 2014 http://landscapequartet.org

(7) ^ http://thewire.co.uk/audio/tracks/hear-­‐exclusive-­‐lee-­‐patterson-­‐sounds, http://www.sounduk.net/pr_page.php?pid=48

(8) ^ http://www.wyness.org, http://workingthetweed.wordpress.com, http://workingthetweed.wordpress.com/lead-­‐artists/james-­‐wyness

(9) ^ We should note already here that one of the categories under critique will in fact be"environment" as it is traditionally understood.

(10) ^ Of course, the apparent absurdity and the puerille joke are also an important part of the "work" the painting does.

(11) ^ Political representation in democratic systems; graphic representation; a small group of people standing in for a larger one - as in making a representation; a model or image of something; a substantial showing - "there was a good representation of her work on snow."

(12) ^ See Morton, 2007.

(13) ^ Cosgrove: "To speak of landscape beauty or quality is to adopt the role of observer rather than participant" (Cosgrove, p.18).

(14) ^ In Gainborough's Mr and Mrs Andrews, for example, the farm land belonging to the eponymous couple features equally as prominently as the figures themselves. See http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/thomas-­‐gainsborough-­‐mr-­‐and-­‐mrs-­‐ andrews

(15) ^ Cosgrove, 1985, passim.

(16) ^ See Macfarlane, 2008, pp. 14-­‐21; Andrews, 1990, pasim.

(17) ^ See Froman, 1996.

(18) ^ Attali’s analysis of the social economy of music in which Representing marks one of the objectifying cultural consequences of Enlightenment epistemology alongside the superceding of fuedalism by capitalism, offers another model through which to critique the epistemological consequences for musical culture of a visually-­‐organised world. Indeed, his opening paragraph challenges the hegemony of the visual as a cultural and historical misapprehension: "For twenty-­‐five centuries, Western knowledge has tried to look upon the world. It has failed to understand that the world is not for the beholding. It is for hearing. It is not legible, but audible" (Attali, 1996, p.3).

(19) ^ It is debatable how new this aspect of the work is, though, with the Land Artists – it is by no means the case that artists prior to the 1960s were not making art that was about their own relation  to the materials which were never intended for an audience, to say nothing of the hidden world of so-­‐called "outsider art".

(20) ^ http://www.bennetthogg.co.uk/?p=652

(21) ^ See Ferguson, 2013 on "imagined agency"; Borgo 2007 on "controlled instability".

 

REFERENCES

Andrews, M. (1990). The Search for the Picturesque: Landscape, Aesthetics and Tourism in Britain, 1760-1800 (Aldershot: Scholar Press)

Attali, J. (1996). Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Bennett. J. (2010). Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press).

Borgo, D. (2007). "The Embodied Mind" Chapter 3 in Borgo, D. Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age (New York: Continuum).

Bronfen, E., Goodwin, S. (1993). "Introduction", in Bronfen, Elizabeth and Goodwin, Sarah Webster (eds.), Death and Representation (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press). pp. 3-25.

Carson, R. (2000 [1962]). Silent Spring. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics (new edition)).

Causey, A. (2006). Peter Lanyon: Modernism and the Land. London: Reaktion Books.

Cosgrove, D. E. (1985). Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble Books.

Eagleton, T. (2007). Ideology: An Introduction (London: Verso)

Ferguson, J. (2013). "Imagined Agency: Technology, Unpredictability, and Ambiguity". In Hogg and Norman (eds.) Resistant Materials in Musical Creativity: Contemporary Music Review vol. 32 no. 2.

Foucault, M. (1991). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

Froman, W. J. ( 1996). "Action Painting and the World-as-Picture". In Galen A. Johnson (Ed.), The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics reader: Philosophy and Painting (pp. 337-347). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Gibson, A. A. (1986). The Ecological Approach To Visual Perception (Psychology Press, new edition).

Harman, G. (2010). Towards Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures (London: Zero Books) pp. 22-43; 93-104; 140-169

Jay, M. (1993). "Scopic Regimes of Modernity". In, Scott Lash and Jonathan Friedman (Eds.), Modernity and Identity (pp. 178-195). Oxford and Cambridge MA: Blackwell.

Johnson, G. A. (1996). "Phenomenology and Painting: 'Cezanne’s Doubt'". In Galen A. Johnson (Ed.), The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics reader: Philosophy and Painting (pp. 3-13). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Kahn, D. (2001). Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press.

Kahn, D (1997). "John Cage: Silence and Silencing". Musical Quarterly vol. 81 no. 4, pp. 556-598.

LaBelle, B. (2007). Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art. New York, London: Continuum.

Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Long, R. (2007). Selected Statements and Interviews. London: Haunch of Venison.

Macfarlane, R. (2008 [2003]). Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (London: Granta Books).

Moorhouse, Paul, (2002), "The intricacy of the skein, the complexity of the web: Richard Long's Art", in Long, Richard, Richard Long: Walking the Line (London: Thames and Hudson).

Morton, T. (2007). Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

Pearson, M. (2006). "In Comes I": Performance, Memory, and Landscape. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

Schafer, R. M. (1994). The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (New York: Destiny Books)

Stephens, C. (2000). Peter Lanyon: At the Edge of Landscape. London: 21 Publishing.

Varela, F. J., Thompson, E, and Rosch, E. (1993). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press.

Voegelin, S. (2010). Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. New York, London: Continuum.

 

 

Bennett Hogg is a composer, improviser, and cultural theorist who teaches at Newcastle University. He currently leads the AHRC-funded environmental sound art project "Landscape Quartet", which includes flautist Sabine Vogel, guitarist Stefan Östersjö, and Matthew Sansom of Surrey University. Much of his creative work has been in the field of electroacoustic composition, but he has recently completed a solo 10-string guitar piece for Magnus Andersson. His academic research, published by Routledge, Oxford University Press, Cambridge Scholars Press, Lund University Press, as well as online, focussing on ideas of embodiment and technology in music from a broadly phenomenological perspectives, the intellectual and creative legacies of surrealism, and psychoanalytical perspectives on voice. He has recently been invited as co-researcher on "Emotional Improvisation: Musical, Intermedial, and Interactive", an Austrian Science Fund (FWF) supported project in Graz, directed by Deniz Peters. He lives in Morpeth, Northumberland.

 

 

 

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