Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sound Installations from Composers at U of L

Last week, I spent an hour and a half hanging different colored airplanes from the ceiling between the two wings of the music school. It provided an opportunity to think about the sound scape that I was helping install, about the nature of art in space in particular, and about the art consumption habits of music school students. I'm not going to discuss the installations themselves, I'll leave that for the composers, James Young and Leah Sproul Pulatie, to post comments and explain (and also link to any photos or videos they have). 

The first thought I had was how nice it was to be helping create something. I am not in any way trying to take credit for any of the ideas or more than a small pittance of the work involved. I simply mean that, despite the fact that I spend most of my day studying music, but very little time making any of my own. It was nice to feel how a composer must feel, as they bring something genuinely new into the world. Despite all logistical and reception problems, regardless of whether or not anyone in the world likes the work, creation is still important. Both installations took inordinate amounts of work, and both will be up around a month, and then will probably never be seen again. The courage to do that work for such a (seemingly, in this late capitalist consumer culture) little material reward is remarkable. I'd do well to remember this, and the small taste of how it feels, as I go on to teach and critique.

The second thought I had was about these works, in their spaces. Both installations were designed for a specific space. Both are spaces that I see nearly every day, and never think of. What I've found matters to me the most regarding these installations is the fact that now, I notice and think of these spaces. It's not merely that there is art happening in them. It is my awareness being broadened, forced to (re-) incorporate marginalized areas that I had before not thought of, areas which will forever be changed (even after the sculptures are taken down) in my mind because of the presence of these installations. I've found that this thinking is more marked with Jame's installation, because of the nature of the space. It is a transitional space, a way of getting from one arrival to another. If anything, it is normally seen as a nuisance, as a space that needs to be traversed before "more" can happen. Now, I am conscious of every step I take, and even find myself lingering in this transitory space, a space I would have no other reason to remain in, to take in more of the installation. I also find myself thinking more about similar spaces I see everyday and pay no mind to.

My third thought involves how students in music school, who will be in one sense of the word professional artists, received the installation of the sculpture. I understand how it could be annoying to have the walkway closed off, as it forces someone to take time out of their day in order to detour, and I don't honestly know how I would have felt about it if I had been in a bad mood (or not known the composer). I heard a LOT of complaining, which, inconvenience aside, is almost inexcusable. It would seem that, as future professional artists, each student here would be trying to consume as much as possible, if for no other reason than because they are curious. As I learned as I talk, write, and teach about music that I love, and as I ask others for music they love, they are a terrifyingly small number of practicing musicians who are actively listening, and that alarms me very much.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Music and Vision

Let us explore a hypothetical:

Assume that you are seeing a live performance of the classic Miles Davis album “Kind of Blue” performed by the original musicians,* exactly how it sounds on the album. You experience this performance in two locations (completely identical performances both times), Blue Note Jazz Club in Greenwich Village and Rose Hall at the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex. To try and create as close to ceteris paribus conditions as possible, let us also assume that any of the ideological, acoustical, and historical material associated with both localities are neutralized, leaving just the music and the visuals. I think you know where I am going with this, the experience of the music would be different. The visual experiences of these localities would work symbiotically with the music in a parallel (identical?) way to music and film.

I understand that the last assertion is a little contentious. The visuals in film are projected two-dimensional images, framed within a set of conventions that allows the music to, at the same time, exist both separate (in that it is does not have to be part of the diegesis) and simultaneous with the image. This allows the music to create a metaphorical relationship with the image; a dialectic between image and music that act on each other creating a synthesis. This is what Michel Chion terms audio-vision, very succinctly summarized by Phil Ford in his review of Michael Long’s book as being, “compounds of sounds, pictures, and words—virtual collections of audiovisual memes assembled in spectators’ minds. The items within these collections are of ever-shifting and indeterminate kind and number; their individual meanings depend on their relations to one another, and those mutual relationships are in constant flux.”

Though a concert hall is typically a static visual (real life experiences of a concert can be visually more dynamic than some film, for example arena rock), the relationship remains the same, or at least similar. Our primary focus in the hypothetical is the music; the imagery is peripheral in our mind. However, in most films the image is in the fore with the music as “background.” This is a very important point that I do not want to just dismiss. In film, even if the image is a static black screen, the music is always perceived as commenting on the image, otherwise it would just be a recording.** In a concert the imagery is affecting our perception of the music.*** Despite this inversion and inequality of roles, there is still a dialectic relationship in which music and visuals interact, changing our perception of both.

I believe we should further explore this relationship vis-à-vis daily life in the 21st century. From birth, individuals are inundated with audiovisual material from films, television, and increasingly the internet. In addition, ipod culture has made it possible for individuals to quite literally provide a soundtrack to their everyday life. Whereas in the early 20th century, framing devices, such as film title music, were needed to “provide the accommodative imaginary space in which a view-auditor recalculates the relationship between ‘real’ sensory input and the interior envisioning required for successful reception of a filmic environment” (Long 34), in the 21st century, viewers no longer need these framing devices to bridge that gap; blurring the line between the real and the imagined. This blurring is furthered by video games and other virtual environments where the individual takes on the persona of a character on screen, becoming fully engrossed into an imaginary diegesis.

Obviously, this is nothing more than some preliminary thoughts, and it may be either totally unoriginal or (for lack of a better word) bogus, however, I think there may be an under-explored intersection between music and vision here that could lead to profound insights into how we understand both.

* I could use an example with musicians that are still alive but it doesn’t really matter, besides I love imagining this possibility.

** This point is brought up by either Gorbmann or Chion, I can’t remember at the moment, but the important point to acknowledge is that it is not a completely equal relationship.

*** Music dramas may complicate this understanding.