Decibel: Anime: PICA: 5/9/2015
Decibel: Anime: PICA performance: 5/9/2015
by Graham Mathwin
by Graham Mathwin
I would prefigure this essay with a reference to one of the works that was presented during Decibel’s Anime. Jonathan Mustard’s Primorph for ensemble and electronics featured an animation of abstract, three-dimensional shapes, floating in the virtual space of the screen. As the shapes moved, the performers played in response. The work exemplified what I felt the evening (except for the last work) was, especially from a visual perspective. The abstract shapes, floating in the air, theatrically lit, twisting themselves into fluid arrangements, reciprocated for me with the instruments that existed in front of the screen, but whose users, all dressed in formal attire, looked to the screen for guidance. The strange theatre that played out on screen reproduced the strange theatre that took place before us. The ability of any of the musicians, and the quality of the composition are beyond reproach, at least to my ears, both of which were exemplary. I shivered, my whole body, at various points throughout the evening. But emotive and bodily affect is only a segment of this investigation, and though the performances were of the highest quality, perhaps there is something in the discourses that they employed, the task that they executed so well, that can be discussed.
By this, I mean what is at the very heart of the show: the relationship of visuality, especially of visual notation, to the audible. Most were engaged much more in audible discourse than visual discourse, particularly those more traditional, such as Stuart James’, Dane Yates’, and Cat Hope’s work. Each used the score as a regular procession from left to right and maintained the relationship of height on the screen to pitch. The emphasis of each work, which oscillated from the visual to the audible, was firmly in the audible for their works, each of them strong in their own presentation, affecting me viscerally – in often quite unnerving ways – yet leaving me with the question of purpose – the reason for using visuality.
There are several issues I wish to discuss within this. The first, close to my own heart, is the realisation of time that some of the works presented. There were some fascinating variations on the use of time: Jonathan Mustard’s work stood out, as did Ryan Ross Smith’s and Felicity Wilcox’s, as works that visualised time in a manner of great interest. They visualised pace and tempo. Mustard and Smith’s works recognised something that I find quite important: that music, with its ability to effect our perceptions so much, can make us feel time differently. Music is not a regular, ticking clock. Time is not so flat and regular that it always needs a line, traveling at a certain pace, to indicate the speed of our reading. Time, and our use of it, is crucial to how we engage in the world – and these works visualisation of it provided ways of understanding it. Ryan Ross Smith’s work played with an irregular, or at least variable image of time, small circles bouncing from one node to another on a semi-circular trajectory, indicating what music was to be played, and at what speed. Things started and stopped, and time, in our experience of it for the performance, was active and engaged with. It was, to me, a much more interesting, but still simple, reading of the nature of time in music. Another that stood out was Jonathan Mustard’s theatrical presentation. This was the most developed visually, apart from Felicity Wilcox’s work; a lot of work had gone into the production of one of the few that was presented without a white background. The nature of time within it was of bodies within space, a much more physical, lived time, with varying intensities and qualities, and moments of activation. These two performances, and Wilcox’s work as well, presented time in a manner that began to unpack how a relationship of image and sound might operate through it. Rather than using it as a constant by which to move an image past the screen, they addressed the potential of visuality to shift and change in our perception of time, and that of music to affect it.
There is also the issue of performativity. I mentioned the costuming of the performers; their suits the same as in any orchestra. The maintaining of this order, against the dissolution of so much of the language of traditional music, seems an idiosyncratic move. Further, if the form of the work is extended into a visual realm, why is the presentation of the performers so typical? It is as if they have been bracketed off, as if the visual presentation outside of the projection was not important. Why is it that the audience faced the performers on tiered seating? If it is like theatre, why not theatrical? The work of Ryan Ross Smith once again made for an extremely good case for its own theatricality, as did that of Begrún Snaebjornsdóttir, and perhaps Mustard’s again, but to a lesser extent. The presence of the performers behind the projection in Smith’s work was an intriguing and ultimately satisfying decision, which operated theatrically and visually, though perhaps more as a gesture than having anything to do with the content of the music. Snaebjornsdottir’s was similar, a toned down visuality, and a reduced number of players, its subtlety, and yet its careful use of theatrical language, was its great success. Yet it seems almost as if the variety and the shift between the more classically oriented, such as Stuart James, and the more interdisciplinary, such as Wilcox’s, necessitated a kind of blank dress. Yet if the language of traditional music is being undone or played with by that which is experimental, why is it that the language of its presentation remains, when it can be so easily dissolved or rearranged? Of course, this costuming is a minor consideration that I have latched onto, but one with broader implications of theatricality: the performative nature of each of the works, and their primary visual construction. There is an interest indicated by Mustard, Smith and Snaebjornsdottir’s work, but it is not yet developed, not yet fulfilled.
The last issue that I had with the works was the idea of sayability. The key to the conceptual dissonance that I sensed, and that was answered by Felicity Wilcox’s work, but is best illustrated by Lindsay Vickery’s work, is how music can speak. Vickery’s work, with the fishes…for string trio and electronics dealt with the nature of sea pollution and oil mining. Most of the works were much less engaged in a landscape of politics, happy to indicate a space between visuality and audibility that was, like Mustard’s work, like watching beautiful figures and forms twist and pirouette. Vickery’s work was explicitly figurative, yet the relationship of the music to the figure was that of incidental music. The answer of Felicity Wilcox is appropriate; not only does her work involve that media by which so much audio work and composition reaches our ears – that of film – it also used time, in slowing and speeding it, in a manner that was most engaged in the world, but also prepared to challenge and engage it. The relationship that was built, between travel and music, made the work the most appropriate to its subject, and that which spoke. The experience of travelling by train is one of passage through space and time. The journey that we experienced witnessing the work, and what it spoke of, was something akin to the blurring of time that occurs at speed. The audible nature of the work, paralleling the thump of drums with the clack of the rails, the regular beat of an engine, spoke eloquently of the issues at play in transit, the strange sensations of alienation and parallax that we have when we are taken out of our home context. The conceptual dissonance that exists in Vickery’s work was between what was audible and what was visible. Why was the text not spoken? Why did we read it visually while music played as a backing track? Why was the relationship of the music to the content of the screen only visual? The outlines of oil slicks say little about the politics that caused them, especially when they are no longer image, but sound. The content of the work was much braver than many of the others, yet did not find the voice it needed to communicate what it had to. The other works, though, were somewhat unconcerned with speaking, and much more concerned with the unsayable nature of music itself. It absolves them of the conceptual dissonance, but only by their removal from any field that might incite it.
Why is this relevant however? The logic of this show about visual notation seems to be a dissatisfaction with an old language, and the development of a new, and so there is a question in what the purpose is, of this fracturing and dissolution of language? What does it hope to achieve? Surely the only purpose to create signs is to find a way to speak? Or, alternatively, to hide meaning so only some understand it, as in code. This music does seem to be a dissolution of the order and control of much classical music, and a capitulation into a state of uncertainty – yet one that still seems to strive for some kind of sense. Perhaps this uncertainty can generate something that will alleviate the orders and controls of what is traditional, or cause them to alter in shape, to adapt them to a new context. The question of much practice that attempts to extend the form of work is often ignored, but it is still there: why have we been saying things like this? Why do we not say them differently? But what is it possible to say differently? What can be spoken of? How can it be said? I feel these questions and criticisms are relevant precisely because the work demands them to be asked. It is a move away from an old language; indeed it is dialectic to it; yet it retains so many links to it that we must demand how it is that these works speak in their own language of sound.
Felicity Wilcox’s work was a fitting finale to the whole evening, a work that bound together the visuality of film, with music, and travel in a manner fitting to each. It spoke so eloquently of its matter that it was successful. It also brought together the extremely adept performances and wonderful technical ability of the gathered musicians. The whole evening was a great celebration, an impressive showcase of new music. Although it was said to be a culmination of Decibel’s research thus far, into animated notation, I hope it is not the end of it, for there is still a vast terrain of potentials to be investigated in the junction of sound and sight.