Sound and Noise

March 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

Part and parcel of living in a cluttered urban space is that the brain is in a constant struggle to filter meaningful sound from the acoustic entropy of noise. As inevitable as noise is part of an urban (motorized, mobilized, populated) environment, as unsurprisingly is the urbanites’ search for meaningful sound. “Hey you,” Althusser’s famous phrase to explain interpellation, may refer to just about anyone in a crowded urban setting. The interpellation foregoes its ideological effectiveness. The subject is alone at large, bathed in unexpected sounds.

Sound is not to be equated with music. Sound can be an orchestrated version of noise or a fully arranged piece of music. But at the beginning of music is (a) sound. Particular sounds stick out, others wane with the passing of instruments or cars, with the seasons or the habitat. The particulars of urban sound are that no frequency is necessarily attributed to particular sources whereas natural environments seem to feature sounds within a limited frequency range with attributable sources such as birds, insects, wind or water falls.

The tension between sound and noise is a strong motif in Gaspard Kuentz und Cédric Dupire’s documentary on Japanese noise/music/sound artists called “We don’t care about music anyway” (produced by Studio Shaiprod, 2009), which is currently on tour in European cinemas and at new music festivals (ie. Maerzmusik in Berlin). The format is (inadvertently) reminiscient  of Wim Wender’s Carnet de Notes sur Vêtements et Villes (1989) by locating a form of avant-gardist creation (music or clothes) within a hyper-modern environment (Japan) where skills and crafts of former times have not only been preserved but productively influenced new techniques. It is this form of forward-looking, innovative engagement with everyday materials that characterizes many of the most striking examples of innovative culture “Made in Japan.”

In Kuentz & Dupire’s film we see Sakamoto Hiromichi shooting plastic balls from a toy hand gun against the body of his worn cello, recording the sound and feeding it back into an echo chamber. Such interaction with a material sound source characterizes much of the work presented in the film. Watch out for musical chain saws and splintering glass.

Yamakawa Fuyuki attaches contact mics to his body near the heart. The sound (electric impulse) controls a number of light bulbs randomly scattered across the floor. Along with the bumping heart beat and an obsessively controlled use of breathing for musical effect, the entire setup comes close to an installation of sound as the tension field of body and technology.

The label noise seems inappropriate for this kind of acoustic sphere. Although many of the compositions presented in the film appear as mere noise, it is a carefully controlled form of sound installation with a strong emphasis on and understanding of the material and corporeal basis of sound. The interest in mere sound, in interferences and overlaps is not unlike Steve Reich’s Phases and similar compositions (ie. “It’s gonna rain”) , which may cater to a Western ear more easily than the atonal, off-beat but still marvelously inventive tones and harmonies of Sakamoto, Yamakawa, Saidrum, Numb et. al.

[This is not a featured post and remains unrelated to business affairs of any actors mentioned in the article. The Ekoune label seems to be out of business, anyway, although their channel still has some techie stuff like the bliptronic 5000 sequencer.]

Auf den zweiten Blick

January 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

Spiegelbild

In der kühlen Gleichförmigkeit der Neuen Nationalgalerie stehen unter dem Titel “Moderne Zeiten” wieder einmal die Schätze des Museums zur Beschau. So wie es zur Tradition eines jeden Museums für moderne Kunst gehört, einmal im Jahr eine Ausstellung über Moderne zu machen, so ist auch die Anordnung und Auswahl der Werke gewissermaßen ein Pflichtprogramm.

Man darf sich nicht wundern, dass die Ausstellung bereits 1945 endet, denn kunsthistorisch ist hier wohl eine Zäsur anzusetzen – nicht alles moderne ist Moderne. Lobenswert ist bei dieser Sammlungsschau, dass man wenigstens eine thematische Eingrenzung gemacht hat: So kommt zum Ausklang ein düster beleuchteter Raum zur Weltkriegserfahrung, mit dessen Eindrücken man sich dann gemütlich ins stahlrohrbestuhlte Kunstcafé setzen kann. Von Kirchners farbenfrohen Badenden zu den Agitatoren von Conrad Felixmüller spannt sich ein fast nostalgisch anmutender Bogen von Kunstwerken, der (wieder einmal) den Eindruck hinterlässt, dass das kuratorische Prinzip weit hinter seinen publikumswirksamen Möglichkeiten zurück geblieben ist.

Während der/die Beflissene nach Zusammenhängen sucht, die sich zwischen den Werken, Künstlern und Epochen herstellen lassen, verfolgen die meisten Besucher den Strom von Bildern beiläufig, ständig auf der Suche nach Wiedererkennbarem. Eigentlich sinnbildlich für die Rezeptionshaltung suchte jene Dame mit weißem Fellornament auf dem Kopf in Dalis Bildnis Frau Isabel Styler-Tas (Melancolia) (1945) nach Verwandtschaften. Während Dali im Bild das Innenleben der Frau Styler-Mas in einem baumbesetzten Granitfelsen spiegelt, wähnt sich die aufmerksame Betrachterin gleichsam formal wie ideell an sich selbst erinnert. Sucht also hier jemand nur Bestätigung seiner eigenen ästhetischen Präferenz. Suchen wir sie nicht alle? Und ist nicht die Anordnung von Kunstwerken in einem gleichförmigen Modus der Betrachtung wie ein Spaziergang durch das KaDeWe? Alles recht gut gemacht, gefällig, aber zu teuer für zu Hause. Das Problem von Museen ist doch immer, dass sie die Objekte, manche viele Millionen Euro “wert”, stets wie disponible Objekte verwalten und je nach Präferenz des Themas neu zusammenstellen. Der Kontext macht den Text, allerdings hier ohne Fußnoten.

Kurt Schwitters “Breite Schmurchel” (1924). (C) Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie; © 2006 Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin

Man stelle sich dagegen vor, wie Kurt Schwitters 1924 ein paar Resthölzer zusammensucht, vielleicht am Nachmittag vor dem Tee, hier und da etwas feilt, sägt und dann alles zusammenhämmert. Zum Abend hängt das gute Stück dann im Flur oder in der Küche und alle freuen sich über die Breite Schmurchel (1924). Sicher, man könnte auch von einem formal-abstrakten Experiment, einer Synthese von materieller Eigenheit und post-ideeler Abstraktion sprechen. Ohne Diskurs käme aber hier wohl keiner aus. Während viele Arbeiten von Schwitters (hier eine Auswahl) einer Nachkriegsbestürzung Ausdruck verleihen, kommen wir doch mit diesem schon fast humoristischen Stück an die Freiheit heran, es für sich selbst stehen lassen zu können. Die Schmurchel schmeichelt dem Gaumen, das Holz zeigt Zeichen von Abrieb, Praxis, Tätigsein. Es ist eigentlich zu simpel für den Diskurs. Material: Holz (teilweise lackiert) Nägel.

Stellen wir die “Dame mit Bild von Dame” mit der Schmurchel auf eine Ebene wird uns plötzlich klar: jedes Artefakt dient in je anderen Kontexten wieder der Knüpfung kommunikativer Beziehungen. Für Schwitters und seine Freunde war aber dieses Objekt ein anderes als das, was von seinem Kontext befreit nun an einer weissen Wand hängt. Die “Frau Styler-Mas” war eine andere im Kreise ihrer Bekannten, als im Bilde des Dali. Würde man sich auf Seiten der Kuratoren einmal von dem Pathos der Historie befreien, könnte man vielleicht auch die Zuschauer erreichen, die einfach einen netten Nachmittag haben wollten.

Russian Maze

July 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

Annette Messager at Ekaterina Foundation (Moscow)

In his famous essay “Persecution and the Art of Writing” Leo Strauss put forward the thesis that “persecution gives rise to a peculiar technique of writing, and … a peculiar type of literature.” Especially in conditions where speaking true is harmful to the speaker, writing and reading “between the lines” are preferred techniques to take part in a private conversation of savants in the face of public exposure. A popular subject or piece of fiction may be tailored in an uncompromising fashion, yet a critical writer will address some sentences to the reader, which intentionally break with the preconditions of the dominant view he/she wishes to criticize.

“[I]f an able writer who has a clear mind and a perfect knowledge of the orthodox view and all its ramifications, contradicts surreptitiously and as it were in passing one of its necessary presuppositions or consequences which he explicitly recognizes and maintains everywhere else, we can reasonably suspect that he was opposed to to the orthodox system as such …”

This style of conveying one’s own view in public is typical under conditions where prosecution is waiting for the critical writer, e.g. in totalitarian regimes. But this style of writing makes a high demand on the reader and his ability to understand the double talk and separate the propagandist, majority view from its critical inversion. Not surprisingly, philology in Russia has had a high social standing and was for a long time deemed a highly respected branch of scholarship.

During the Fulbright Summer School in the Humanities at Moscow University this June the intricate relation of readers and writers, especially in Soviet and less so in post-Soviet Russia, became apparent as a major trope in research on literature and popular criticism. In turn, an arrangement such as in Leo Strauss’ description, creates a certain necessity to have “first readers” who are able to educate the public on the most important contemporary authors and teach how they should be read. Ilya Kukulin, editor of The New Literary Review, pointed out that a common way to evade censorship and speak to readers in disguise was the use of “Aesopian language”. Named after the Greek writer, Aesop, this language conveys its intention mainly by metaphor, analogy and simile. As in his fables of animals acting like humans, the morale of a tale refers back to the humans instead of the animals.

Apart from Aesopian language proper, the form of discourse associated with it is still pervasive as a legacy of decades of persecution in Russia. As Julia M. Allen points out, Russia invented this particular form of writing as a way to escape censorship:

“Aesopian language is discourse characterized by indirection. Such discourse can be found almost anywhere, but the term originated in nineteenth century Russia, where to speak openly was dangerous, given the Czar’s vigilant censors. Considered from the perspective of the censored (and it was those who were censored, after all, who first coined the term*), “Aesopian language” encompasses all the linguistic devices writers and speakers use to communicate with audiences in situations where their words are either overtly or covertly restricted.”

*The first use of the term is generally attributed to Russian satirist M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrin in the early 1860s.
(Julia M. Allen “‘That Accursed Aesopian Language’: Prosecutorial Framing of Linguistic Evidence in U.S. v. Foster, 1949” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 4.1 (2001) 109-134)

In the long run, this way of double talking continues down to the contemporary music scene, where one state leader is curiously absent from the list of despots selling out natural resources to sustain autocratic rule. See this example of Lyapis Trubetskoy in their title Capital (h/t Mikhail Egorov).

What happens to such kind of cultural knowledge and textual competency when a nation is invaded by an unlimited number of foreign discourses, phrases and ideas? When the parameters of true but disguised speech and official but propagandist speech no longer frame the intellectuals’ self-image and their role in society? The introduction of the Internet, more than mobile phones and televisions, has created a cultural vacuum in Russia, at least in the eyes of those intellectuals schooled in intricate double-talk. Their competence in double entendre and ethos of education for a long time legitimized their own speaking position. But abundance creates confusion. In the old days, a good book could be pinpointed simply by its rarity. Illegal prints, known as Samizdat literature, where a common way to circulate precious pieces of criticism. But consumerist emancipation and relentless individualism have provoked a crisis in the evaluation of this cultural heritage.

Boris Dubin, Head researcher at the Yuri Levada Center, presented a rather somber picture of the role of reading and intellectual discourse in post-soviet Russia. Comparing contemporary society to Riesman’s Lonely Crowd, Dubin summarized that market economy and disillusionment about possible change had created a middle person rather than a middle class in Russia. Fragmentation of leisure and intellectual pursuits is reflected in a small number of strong ties and leaves engagement with collective issues to specialists. The legacy of the pre-and post-Soviet past looms large over attempts to create a future. Dubin said that “group feelings were always weak in Russia.” The familiar image of worker’s collectives is itself a cover-up for enforced collectivization and was quickly shed after 1990.

The net of the past is not merely present as state apparatus, in the form of institutions or old cliques. The critical stance towards the present is held captive on all sides in a discursive web of outlived parameters. For a critical stance to develop a vision of the future, these parameters will have to be exposed as the coveted mechanism of control which they are. Not much reading between the lines here, but there are flowers and music on the Red Square at sunset.

Richard Price brings the “Lush Life” to Berlin

May 30, 2010 § 1 Comment

On a warm, sunny evening at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, American author Richard Price read from his latest book, Lush Life, a crime novel set in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. From the gallery opening out to Pariser Platz and the Brandenburg Gate, Price’s reading was remarkable for the vivid style of his presentation which found unintended echos in the scene behind him. Impersonating more than one character through his tone of voice, jargon and versatile lingo, the city of Berlin seemed to answer back through the glass veil.

Price became famous as a screenwriter for numerous Hollywood movies such as The Color of Money (1985), Michael Jackson’s/ Martin Scorsese’s Bad (1987), the reissue of blaxploitation classic Shaft (2000), and most recently the HBO series The Wire. Next to his screenplays he is also an acclaimed author of novels, which are marked by an “ear for dialogue”, bringing to life the multicultural, multidimensional and contradictory voices and views of inhabitants in metropolitan American cities. Asked about the role of the city in his novels, Price conceded that the city was an important character, created through the voices and stories of the people who inhabit it. The format of the crime novel is here especially suited to explore the urban interplay of languages, voices and secret stories.

In The Wire, Price and his co-authors have followed this lead and laid out a panoply of voices from Baltimore, making the city the central character of the narration in its divers episodes. Price mentioned “social realists” on city life and more poetic authors such as James Baldwin and Hubert Selby Jr. as his most admired authors at an early age. In college, the “bebop” feel for rhythm of the beat poets was a strong inspiration for his style, although he would “be asleep in three minutes” today reading through Jack Kerouac’s On the Road again.

Price’s view of working for the movie industry was highly amusing to the audience that consisted mainly of scholars and professional devotees to American literature and culture. Having to balance writing novels with commercial script writing for movies and television, Price professed no interest in literary theory or scholarship. Rather than think about what he should do, he rather wanted to “get it done”. His unpretentious and outspoken look at his own work was a welcome reminder of the separate spheres academic and popular writers still inhabit. Doing something lucrative, Price summed up, allowed him to pursue his novel writing and have greater control over his work. On the occasion of the German American Studies Association annual conference, entitled “American Economies“, the reading of Lush Life and Price’s take on artistic and commercial production delightfully challenged the tacit separation of markets and metaphysics.

Material come Motion

September 17, 2007 § Leave a comment

Hana Usui, a Tokyo-born and Berlin-based artist, has been learning the strenuous task of calligraphy the hard way. Starting in her childhood and becoming master student of Undo Inamura at the age of 14, she became acquainted with the aesthetic conventions of one of Japan’s most elaborate arts at an early age. In 1998 she graduated from Waseda University in Tokyo with a Thesis on The Influence of Avantgardist Calligraphy and Wester-American Art.

Since those days her skill as painter has prompted her to explore the ways in which the paper reacts to the ink and brush. As in many Japanese arts, from carpentry to lacquer ware, developping and exploring the limits of the material has been a traditional concern brought to fruition.

Usui/Farabegoli are positive about “Negative”

The recently opened exhibition “Negative” at Galerie Oko proves once again, how Usui’s knowlegde of washi (和紙) interacts with the aesthetic conventions of calligraphy and contemporary art. At the same time her works are reminiscent of the late Action Painting by Jackson Pollock. The crucial difference is that her paintings lack, despite their measure, any pretensions of aggressiveness. They seem to be suspended in midair, softly attached to the wall, as if a frame could keep their motion from spreading. But as the video shows, these pictures (especially “Untitled, No. 1”) are to be perceived in motion. It’s motion come material, where the paper softly answers every call of the brush, every drop of the ink with a bend and a tilt in all directions. The impression is an extremely forceful one (concerning the motions) and a fragile one (concerning the material).

As every artist spreads the boundaries of his given medium, Hana Usui’s fascination with the flexibility and responsiveness of paper, is revealed especially by her stylistic inversion of a negative, black background. The use of alternative tools, e.g. screwdrivers, and the combination of oil colour and black ink illustrates her search for new ways of making the surface talk. Since your flat screen won’t reveal any of the intimacy of colour, material, or the flying birds, see for yourself at Schroederstrasse 12, Berlin, Germany.

Birds in flight?

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