Soundarts and the Living Dead

Imagine starkness;

“A late evening in the future ~ Krapp’s den.

Front centre a small table, the two drawers of which open towards audience.  Sitting at the table, facing front, i.e. across from the drawers, a wearish old man: Krapp.

Rusty black narrow trousers too short for him. Rust black sleeveless waistcoat, four capacious pockets. Heavy silver watch and chain. Grimy white shirt open at neck, no collar. Surprising pair of dirty white boots, size ten at least, very narrow and pointed.  White face. Purple nose. Disordered grey hair. Unshaven.

Very near-sighted (but unspectacled). Hard of hearing. Cracked voice. Distinctive intonation. Laborious walk.

On the table a tape-recorder with microphone and a number of cardboard boxes containing reels of recorded tapes.

Table and immediately adjacent area in strong white light. Rest of stage in darkness……..”.

This is Krapp and these are the minimalist stage settings for the first performance conducted between a live actor and a tape recorder, a dialogue between a man and the recorded voice of his younger incarnations ~ the year 1958.

The motivation for this critique is prompted by a sense of disgruntlement (similar to that so willingly displayed by the wearisome Krapp!) with contemporary computer based sound-art performance. The bitch is threefold; with history, or rather the alarming fog of amnesia that obscures the recent archaeology of sound-art and sonic-performance; with the hijacking of the term sound-art under the cover of these murky conditions and its re-purposing as a synonym for lap-top electronica and with the death (or dearth) of the performative within this genre.  These scenarios are offered as a rough guide to what habitually goes unacknowledged and attempt to give a historical tag to the “New” in “New Media”!

Imagine intervention;
London, August 3rd 1972, the Mokka Bar, 29 Frith Street, Soho W1.  Outside London’s first espresso bar stands a man with a grudge against the discourteous proprietor, his frizzy haired wife and their poisonous cheesecake; in his hands a sonic-weapon playing back audio cut-ups of material recorded on location.  The man, who also insists “language is a virus” (nein mein Liebling it wasn’t Laurie Anderson) persists in his sonic-assault until October 30th 1972 when the Mokka bar closes down. Burroughs strategic use of audio cut-ups delivered in-situ were designed to spread rumours; to discredit opponents; to function as a frontline weapon to produce and escalate riots and as a long-range weapon to scramble and nullify associational lines put down by mass media.

This is pretty serious stuff, and certainly of interest to the Federal forces of evil, neither should we overlook the fact that all this could be done with razor blades and sticky tape!

Imagine gesture;
The Mise en Scène is not so stark this time; the setting, a large opulent salon furnished predominantly in red.  A young man stands behind another as if in a tentative embrace, their arms outstretched before them, their hands moving together rhythmically, the younger man carefully guiding the elder.  In the corner of the salon, next to the tall casement windows, a woman is playing Glinka’s “Skylark” on the piano.  Halfway through the recital the young man releases his gentle grasp on the older man’s hands and quietly steps back to observe Comrade Vladimir Il’yich complete the piece with tolerable skill.  An enthusiastic round of applause follows and Lenin beams at 26 year old Leon Theremin, pleased at his encounter with the world’s first electronic musical instrument.  We are in the Kremlin, the year 1922, the revolution is still rosy and the gestural interface is a Soviet concept!

Imagine the future;
Today music; as it becomes continually more complicated, strives to amalgamate the most dissonant, strange and harsh sounds.  In this way we come ever closer to noise-sound.  This musical evolution is paralleled by the multiplication of machines, which collaborate with man on every front…….the machine today has created such a variety and rivalry of noises that pure sound, in its exiguity and monotony, no longer arouses any feeling.


Anyone with even a vague interest in Industrial sound-art is simply delusional if they haven’t yet read the “Art of Noises” written in 1913 by Luigi Russolo (so just do yourself a favour!).  His “Intonarumori” devices were designed to produce a gamut of machine-like modulated rhythmic sounds emanating from; howlers, exploders, crumplers, hissers and scrapers.  The debut performance “Gran Concerto Futuristica” on April 24th 1914 at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan witnessed formally dressed performers defending themselves from a hail of rotten fruit and vegetables, their output balanced by the howls, screams and hisses of the audience.

Imagine ubiquity;
Personal Computers are now as ubiquitous as the Singer sewing machine in the mid C19th or the Brownie box in the early C20th.  They are marketed in exactly the same manner and generate very similar social effects.  These devices ensure, by their ubiquity, a profound level of banality and are successful to the degree that contemporary society reifies the mundane; orchestrated by the televisual cult of the Lowest Common Denominator.

Like the Singer and the Brownie Box, the Laptop is a powerful tool that relocates the serial production work of the factory within the home, blurring the boundaries between industrial labour and domestic pastime, spawning yet another generation of semi-industrialised ‘out-workers’ engaged in forms of electronic cultural macramé in which the exponential proliferation of texts, images and sounds ensures a concomitant reduction in the level of significance of the individual artifact.

Imagine the gig;
And now to the subject at hand.  Imagine a darkened room, front centre a small table, a profusion of wires exposed to the audience.

On the table a mixing desk with microphone and a number of interface devices centre of the table, expensive new laptop, to the left a mouse.

Table and immediately adjacent area in weak white light.  Rest of stage and audience in darkness……

Sitting motionless at the table a young man stylishly down-dressed, partially obscured by the lid of the machine, upper half of the face illuminated in pale colour-less light.

It is hard not to recognize the scenario, sitting awkwardly on worn out cushions scattered over an unenthusiastically cleaned concrete floor, as in Vipassana meditation the discomfort is integral to the experience.  The audience is transfixed, all eyes upon the pale light bathing the performers motionless face.  Nothing more of note transpires, beyond the crackle and drone of ersatz industrial audio (proudly flaunting OH&S noise abatement limits) and the occasional flick of the right wrist creating that Wabi-Sabi moment when a glimpse of red light escapes from under the mousing hand!

The experience, save for some incidental movements, is entirely Acousmatic in nature (but lacks the intellectual rationale that Acousmatics pursued).  From the perspective of the audience the performer’s physical presence is merely instrumental offering no palpable connection between action and outcome (could they be actually doing email all along?).

So what of this lineage?  Acousmatics (from the Greek Akousma, what is heard) has its origins with Pythagoras (6th century BC) who delivered his oral teachings (oracle-like) from behind a curtain in order to prevent his physical presence distracting his students, a technique designed to grant them a pure focus on the content of his words.

In 1955 the term “Acousmatique” was employed by the poet Jérôme Peignot, at the beginning of musique concrète, as an adjective, meaning a sound that we can hear without knowing its cause, and to designate the distance that separates a sound from its origins, by obscuring, behind the impassivity of the loudspeaker, any visual elements that may be associated with it.

Then in the early 1970s, Francois Bayle introduced the expression Acousmatic Music while director of the Groupe Recherches Musicales in Paris, employing it to denote a specific kind of music, as an art of projected sounds shot and developed in the studio, projected in halls, like cinema.  Laptop sound performances are in this ballpark but have added a dash of ego-based DJ personality in the guise of a ‘live’ event.

The sparse aesthetic of contemporary lap-top gigs makes it is difficult to avoid sensation of Déjà Vu (or maybe Déjà Entendre) ~ Edith Sitwell probably had a more radical idea when in 1922 she performed her work “Façade” through a megaphone, from behind a curtain (at least it provoked an uproar!).  Naturally the FSOL had it all well sorted; who needs the hassle of airports, road-cases and roadies who can only count to two, when it is possible to stay at home in the studio and beam the stuff in!  Or dear old Kraftwerk? Their impassivity in front of a row of shiny laptops in their recent performances is a self-reflexive critique, a pastiche of their own earlier Mensch-Machine shtick, as well as a very intelligent image-renovation strategy that bridges generational gaps in music culture.

Maybe those smug and culturally bereft corporate types are onto something with their trite “Think outside the square” mantra ~ it’s high time for the Electronica crew to gaze past the dim light of the 17” rectangle!

Krapp motionless, staring before him, the tape runs on in silence.  CURTAIN.