Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Hearing Metal series

Page 16 of the score to Hearing Metal 3

In a previous post, I wrote that the driving force behind the fields have ears series was extensive listening (that is, listening outwards along expanding lines, the way I think we do in a “field”). In the Hearing Metal series the listening is intensive: by this I mean hearing “into” physical material, where by means of sound it proceeds to unfold into facets.

The series began with Greg Stuart’s suggestion that I consider writing a piece for the 60-inch tam-tam required for a performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mikrophonie I. (Stuart was at that time involved in preparing that piece for a performance in San Diego.) Greg had discovered that the range of sounds produced by this huge instrument was vastly multiplied by “close-recording” with the microphone. (Mikrophonie for all its brilliance just amplifies the sounds. Greg found that with the microphone one could hear more detailed and complex sounds than one could with the ear alone, i.e., that one could make sounds in a completely different manner when the microphone was being used.) He sent me a few brief recordings of the instrument and they were fascinating enough to suggest that the physical/sonic properties were worth exploring in detail.

As can sometimes happen to me when struck by an unfathomable sound, this most basic question suddenly arose: “What is a sound?”  There’s never one answer; maybe it’s not even important to answer. But each of the four compositions of the Hearing Metal series was written under the influence of this question. Each is an attempt to enter into the space of one or more instruments, and then to expand that space, to hear an inner geography of the range of sounds chosen. Any sound, even the simplest, is already (ontologically) multiple. But the multiplicity requires a succession of events to be heard: by extending, repeating, adding and subtracting, one begins to experience the sound more like a verb than like a noun. Sound is revealed through a concatenation of actions that follow a particular logic (in this case, that logic is the composition).
My sense was that each instrument or group also conjured a range of affects unique to it; as if the physical material itself could, with a little compositional mediation, be transmuted into an expression of something like the “feeling of the material.” (This is why reference is made with each work to the sculpture of Constantin Brâncuși.)

The four pieces in the series, all for metal percussion with sine tones (and occasionally other sounds and instruments) generally move upwards through the registers of metal percussion as the instruments themselves get smaller. The subtitles are from works by Brâncuși. All the recordings were made by Greg Stuart and myself.

Hearing Metal 1, 2009 (Edition Wandelweiser 0902, 63’42”). A collection of three pieces for the 60-inch tam-tam plus sine tones (“Sleeping Muse”, “The Endless Column”, “Sculpture for the Blind”).

The sound of the tam-tam when bowed or lightly struck is a composite chord with many (maybe hundreds of) elements. But it behaves unpredictably: one has very little control over which elements of the “chord” will appear and in which arrangement. These pieces create (in three different ways) opportunities to hear the elements of this source chord again and again. Similar to the method of my Transparent City pieces, the sine tones are used to locate facets of the geography of the sound that might otherwise remain hidden or unheard.

Hearing Metal 2 (La table du silence), 2010/2011 (Gravity Wave 005, 62’00”). Low to mid-range percussion, with a few higher instruments (almglocken, bell plates, brake drums, chimes, metal objects with contact microphones, cymbals, glockenspiel, gongs, steel drums, tam-tams, vibraphone); radio, electric and bass guitar, sine tones, samples and field recording.

A vastly expanded palette was used to represent what I thought of as a “silence.” As a memorial, Brâncuși’s sculpture turns an absence into a substance. This parallels my own view that silence is dense–because it is likely our best way in music to experience contingency. Contingency is (among other things) the hidden succession of things that creates any present. I think we have to understand this succession as basically unreadable: infinitely layered, chaotic. But we can sense it. I used 80 simultaneous tracks of recordings of the instruments that Greg had played to create this silence. The guide for how to deal with the 40 minutes of sound (i.e., the central part of the piece) is given below.

A chart from the score to Hearing Metal 2

Groupings of the sounds were created according to the parameters of “pitch”, “noise”, “mixtures” and “semi-pitched” and then crossfaded up and down (using a maypole-like structure to indicate the relative balance of the tracks). In practice the balancing was much more nuanced (with individual tracks moving up and down within each category), but I think one can still hear the succession.

I didn’t think one could begin this piece with this monolithic music, and so took my cue from the fact that La table du silence is situated outdoors: an invitation to see this silence as somehow framed by field recording. In the long first part of the piece, the recordings move essentially from the ocean to the interior, following the path of a river, perhaps hearing (or imagining) incidental sounds of radio and music on the way. The recordings themselves come from various places (in Big Sur, Austria and Germany) and include samples of radio test tones and stations (fading in and out the way they do when one walks through the hills) and transformed samples of my son John playing organ (perhaps one passes the ruins of a cathedral?). There’s a relatively short excerpt at the end (after the central section) of a stream in Germany, early in the morning as the birds start to sing. The feeling is (to me) meant to suggest that one comes upon this silence in the midst of a solitary walk.

Hearing Metal 3 (Prometheus, 1911), 2010/2011 (Gravity Wave 006, 45’20”). Sixteen suspended cymbals (bowed and with “gravity excitation”) and sine tones.

The ensemble for this piece was suggested by Greg Stuart, and I immediately went for it. The image of 16 suspended cymbals was really striking (even before one heard anything).  

16 suspended cymbals (with the composer)

After writing fields have ears (4) I wanted to work again with the idea of change. In this case the basic change that takes place over the 45 minutes is from the vibration of a solid (i.e., the cymbal bowed) to a kind of physical “evaporation” as the mode of excitation changes to gravity (beans, rice and then finally, millet falling on the cymbals). Like ricefall and some of the pieces from the fields have ears series, the ground is laid out as a grid prepared with other surfaces (including tile, metal, wood, paper, ceramic, dry leaves and even four drums in the center), which can be heard as the various grains fall from the cymbals. The ground comes to the fore in the center of the piece (when “the beans begin to fall”) and gradually disappears as the grain changes (in several stages and combinations) to the very light millet. The sine tones accompany, and at times instigate the change.

Hearing Metal 2 and Hearing Metal 3 were planned to work both separately and together. The structural movement from heavy to light and the placement of the silences are stronger when the two pieces are heard together. The moment when gravity starts in Hearing Metal 3 is a larger-scale transformation when heard in the 107 minute context of the two works together. (If you have the discs and the patience, give it a try!)

Hearing Metal 4 (Birds in Space), 2010/2011 (unreleased, 25’00”). Glockenspiel, electric guitar, sine tones and samples (of glockenspiel, energy chimes and crotales).

As a kind of coda to the large-scale dimensions of the first three members of the series, I wrote Hearing Metal 4 as a piece that Greg and I could play live. Greg had suggested that I consider Brâncuși’s Bird in Space as a reference and this fit perfectly in the trajectory of the previous two parts of the series (essentially completing the transformation from ground to air). 

This piece moves up the notes of a high A major scale, using each tone of the scale as the starting point for an expanding and contracting shape, made with layered glockenspiel, crotales and sine tones, and etched into the surrounding silence.

Hearing Metal 4 (excerpt)

My deepest thanks to Greg Stuart. It probably goes without saying at this point that none of these works would have been remotely possible without his artistry and the ridiculous amount of work he puts into them.

We (Greg and I) would like to acknowledge the support of Antoine Beuger, Jon Abbey, and Yuko Zama in the release of the recordings. (It probably also goes without saying that the discs of the first three are available from erstdist.)

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