Site Reading

Published as part of ArtSelector Issue 8: Être -là (Being there)

Site Reading is an investigation into concepts of site and site-writing through listening to ‘What do you make of what I say//2009//’, a series of situated sound recordings produced by ten artists.

[0]

‘What do you make of what I say //2009//’ is a game of Chinese whispers in the form of sound recordings, played out in ten rounds by ten players. The first link in the chain, Julia Eckhardt, who conceived of and produced the project, starts the process with her piece ‘Aspects 1-7’. It was then sent on to another participating artist, who would create a response within the time limit of four weeks, which was then to sent on to the next artist and so on. As Eckhardt says in her introduction to the project – included in the ‘listening book’ that accompanies the CD – “The contributions are strongly connected to the time and place of those specific four weeks during the year 2009”. Each piece is audibly related to where the artist was living and working at the time, yet, due to the act of responding to the previous artist’s piece, other places and times become interspersed and encased inside one another. I begin listening one Sunday evening and progressively listen to each track over a period of 24 hours.

I listen to the first track at around 6pm on the Hi-Fi in the main room of our flat. Concerned with making an effort to listen properly, I sit in a low leather armchair next to the speakers, studying the accompanying CD book as I write. My notebook is balanced on the wide, cracked arm of the chair, pen hovering over the title ‘/2009/1’. I try and make an effort to sit properly; feet square on the floor. As the chair is so low, this is uncomfortable. Italo Calvino’s one sided conversation with his reader on the impossibility of finding the perfect reading position in the first chapter of ‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’ comes to mind. I end up lounging horizontally across the chair with my feet on the neighbouring desk, writing materials in my lap.

[1]

I try to match up the sections of music with the movements detailed in the CD book. They are illustrated from I to VII with notes and drawings. Then, in the end notes for VII ‘Interference,’ I notice that Eckhardt refers to ‘player 1’. It seems each player has a different score to follow, playing either a cello or a viola. The instructions depict how to play the instruments in particular positions – upside down or in the ‘table top position’ – and describe how the player should carve sounds out of them. I imagine a viola on the desk next to me and pushing ‘2 shashlik sticks’ steadily along its strings and across its wooden side. The waves of rhythm sound familiar. They remind me of the way the trains make this room and all the things in it hum as they go past. The space around me suddenly feels very solid and very full. Eckhardt’s working space overlaps with my own, its objects and surfaces merging with the space in which I write whilst listening to her recording.

[2]

Overtly aware of all external sounds – the high pitched spin of the washer and the background chatter in the next room – I decide to use headphones plugged into my laptop to listen to the second track. This way I can enclose myself into my writing space, combining input and output succinctly. However, ‘Aspect 1-7’ remains as a layer underneath the second track and the room begins to peer over my shoulder as I sit with my back to it, facing the window. ‘A Room Inside A Room: Re-Sonance’ by Chiyoko Slavnics overlays Eckhardt’s recording with a complimentary piece; they merge and part and intermingle. There is a sound like rain beginning to fall outside. I watch the cars driving over the bridge and feel the basse of next doors’ music through the floor. Slavnics adds field recordings, such as the digitally re-worked sound of a plane taking off recorded from inside the cabin, and the breathy sounds of a heating and cooling plant. The sensation of where I am splits into layers that refuse to stack neatly on top of one another; my thoughts, the solidity of a chair underneath me, the room squatting behind me, the evening drift of the street outside.

In the middle of a white gallery wall is Mansfred Werder’s text score, ‘Mansfred Werder 20121’. It is printed on tracing paper, both casting a shadow on and framing the texture of the wall behind it, signalling its porosity to the world around it. A ‘found text’, the words read ‘the physics of ideation’.

[3]

It is late when I begin to listen to track three. Fading in and out, the repetition is unsettling; a rotation that doesn’t break and never peaks. Outside, the street lights have a flatness and the shadows are still and unbending. It starts, stops and then slowly begins to swell. The room crackles behind me. For the CD book, Mieke Lambrigts has provided a photograph, which is split across two pages. Fading or rising, the sun turns the sky a dense orange behind an industrial skyline. A mechanical hum. The sound has a dull blade, like the white light of the desk lamp. My eyes hurt. Far away is a stirring rumble; something large, living and breathing. The building whirs and shifts. Outside, everything is static. Nothing moves in the street or in the lamp-lit windows.

[4]

Manfred Werder’s piece is a recording of an exact moment and place in time: ‘28 Rue de la Bauderie, June 19 of 2009, 10:28pm to 10:35pm’. It is also the realisation of his text score ‘20051’. Werder’s scores are creative catalysts in their own right, able to exist as standalone texts, poems, or scores for performance. There is a wholeness to his work that defies boundaries between things, words, sounds and thought, creating ‘a place where all is permanently drifting in its own right’. Lying in bed in a dark room, I am listening to the sounds of a street in another time and place as if they are underneath my window. The sounds are also memories of other rooms in other places, of balconies in foreign cities and slow, hot evening wanderings when it is impossible to sleep. The time is actually much later than on this street in Brussels. Curling toes up under the duvet, any rigid concept of site seems undefinable. Thinking of George Perec, I try to concentrate on the details. Someone is sweeping. Men walk past conversing amiably in French and the running feet of children dance in and out. I consider whether Werder’s work can be both a site and site-writing at the same time.

[5]

It is early morning. The gong sounds and I open my eyes. A radio languidly tunes in and out. Birds chitter. A peeling sound of rain flows into airy static and fades. Voices swell into a restaurant scene. Now and again one voice can be picked out , cutting clear above the rest. The radio is now playing a twee French song. The gong sounds again and suddenly everything is quiet, except for a whisper of the radio’s music, which lingers for a moment on the airwaves. Someone is talking in German. A car door slams. Outside, a man is getting something out of a green van. One single tone rings, followed by a snatch of dialogue. The buzz of static returns over a fluctuating tremble of bird song. Commuters on bicycles free-wheel down the bridge. The record catches; a hum and a snort. A sudden squeal makes me jump as seagulls fly up over my window, bellies and wings spread eagle in an ascent to roost in the roof above me. They use the buildings either side of the water like cliffs. Voices come together, different languages roll over one another. Someone laughs. A couple kiss on the bridge. It is 8.30am and a surge of cars depart for work. The track ends.

In three parts Annette Krebs’ track ‘In Between’ seems to epitomise the process of /2009/. Slowly originating from the previous track, she takes the sound to a time and place of her own before culminating in a blend of voices. There are three parts that run together; sound, material and form.

[6]

I listen to Tim Parkinson’s ‘Melodica and Percussion’ on my phone whilst cycling to work. The opening notes are short and sharp, like the blinding glare of the winter sun. The bicycle adds its own percussion, constantly ticking over underneath. The drum beat is joined by the tapping of construction workers easing into the cold, dry morning. As words come together in my head, the immateriality of thought now sits separately from the material practice of writing. A long throbbing note coincides with a wait at the traffic lights. It slowly becomes clear that the structure of this track reflects its predecessor. A harmony comes together as I approach the school, strong notes breaking through as the sky opens up over the playing fields. The music ends almost as I arrive. I now know exactly how long my journey to work is: 7 minutes and 3 seconds. There was a time when writing was measured by the yard.

[7]

‘Observation Report’ is a jumble of places. Olivier Toulemonde’s diary is a piece of site-writing in and of itself and gives a paragraph of text to each place a pair of musicians travel to, starting in the afternoon and moving into the evening. I wonder if the musicians are responding to the site as they play. The two instruments – a violin and a flute perhaps – remain in conversation throughout the piece. The recording, however, is not linear. The honking of horns, the slamming of doors, or the grating noise of skateboards on concrete interrupt and overwhelm the instrumental sounds. It’s lunchtime and I listen to the track on headphones at my desk a few times, amusing myself by trying to pick out the different scenes using the text like a map. Different measurements of experience are at play here. The dialogue made by the instruments is broken up, like a train of thought on a busy street . The lingering memory of the whole afternoon is a collage, whilst the paragraphs of site-writing stand alone, like photographs taken on a day out.

[8]

In contrast to ‘Observation Report’ where I felt engrossed in a present experience, Manu Holterbach’s untitled piece holds me at arm’s length from my surroundings. Walking home, wheeling my bicycle through rain washed streets, the haunting track keeps me alert. The streets are quiet. Walkers pass quickly, head down, eager to get inside. The clouds gather as a brooding hum builds. Echoes of another space, vast and clean, tumble down the road. Just as Holterbach reverberated parts of the previous work around new spaces to make his piece, his recording now rolls like a ghost through mine. The squeak of shoes on varnished floors and the chiming of mechanical cogs suit the sodden concrete with its blush of early blossoms, crushed by heavy water. The street takes on a new shade to its personality, lilting birdsong harmonising with an electro acoustic accompaniment. The background hum grows and I realize how cold I am. Footsteps and voices cut across the empty road. The rain is starting up again and I put up an umbrella, steering the bicycle one-handed along the pavement. As a section of percussion closes the piece, I imagine the rain sinking through the ground, slipping through secret places as the track fades out.

[9]

The beginning of the quietly immersive piece ‘Echelon #9’ is almost silent. I strain to hear a faint ticking. A deep sound briefly swells and shudders. Footsteps skip past. I am even trying to type quietly. People holding umbrellas are trickling home, lit up up by the lights of cars in the wet haze. I close my eyes to concentrate. The swelling noise builds and stops. Boats knock together as they drift. Small details are picked out by an echo of acoustic sound lifted from other pieces in the series. A deep watery tone rings. It is as if I am holding my head underwater in the bath, listening to the crashing of water in my ears and the overbearing silence of nothing except a heartbeat.

For the CD book, Aernoudt Jacobs has provided a representation based on the ‘comparisonics scheme’, the different colours representing the pitch of the sound changing over time: “Each different score represents a major step during the composition phase of my work. It gives you a view of how the previous echelon transforms my work.” Despite being taken to the immersive space of the lone writer or composer, I am reminded of the consistent feedback loop of experience and the process of working that exists within that space; a space that is perhaps always in some sense collaborative.

[10]

The static crackles, like the fizz of champagne or the sensation of popping candy melting at the back of the throat. In the distance an acoustic echo is falling away. Inside, looking out at the night, it’s comforting to listen to the fire-like spit and fizz and watch the rain coming down. Fragments of sound can be heard drifting faintly in the distance. The dark is dense and close, but space extends infinitely in all directions. Just outside the window is the sodden branch of a tree. I watch the water gather, swell and split, tumbling in different directions and scooping up droplets as it goes.

For this last piece – the concluding track on the CD – Anne Wellmer had originally planned to generate her response through a a digital conversion of sound data, but the process was taking too long for the time limit. By chance, she was asked by another sound artist to help record ionospheric sounds with a long looped antennae. Her eventual track ‘2009 sparkles…’ contains the recordings of that night. This piece, like the eventual and overall product of ‘/2009/’, is a map of personal experiences of place and time, specifically related to each artist’s process of working and the spaces they work in. Each responsive track in /2009/ is connected to its predecessor – often retaining aspects of the original composition – and through it, all the other works as well. This seems to aptly describe our relationship to place, which is both personal and collective; a combination of present experience, mixed with prior knowledge and memory.

As a whole, the work questions the effect of this experience of place on how we approach reading, listening or viewing. What constitutes the ‘site’ of that interaction is hard to pin down. Each rendition of /2009/ could be quite different depending on who was listening to it, where and on what. Whilst limited to ten tracks, the game of Chinese whispers inherent in all creative interaction never really ends, but continues with every ‘active and open listening’.

‘What do you make of what I say//2009//’ was conceived and realised by Julia Eckhardt
http://www.compostandheight.com

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