Exhibiting sound in an art context is always challenging. It is experiential by nature and requires time. It also invades space with little respect for measured boundaries. If made interactive, or moderately controllable, how can the experience be more than what is already common with pressing on screen buttons and clicking links? This is what I’m looking address with the use of physical media and the very tactile devices that perform them. Most recently, this was part of an installation in an abandoned seed drying facility on a heritage farm in central Iowa.
-n 1. a noisy confused place or situation.
Recently I’ve become very aware of how working on a new piece changes the way that I view the objects around me. I’ve been working for the last few weeks with scientist, archer and artist Kenji Yoshino on a new performance that utilizes archery in a sound art piece. We met at the Grin City Collective in Grinnell, Iowa while we were both artists in residence there. Kenji supplied the farm with, among other things, an array of bows and arrows for us to shoot in our free time. He also provided the instruction for those needing it. Being an Eagle Scout and growing up in a shooting family, I knew my way around the bow even if it had been over 15 years since I shot last.
As we were shooting with a bunch of the other artists on the farm, I recorded a good amount of audio from the arrows hitting the target and hay bail which later, I worked into the performance at Relish during my stay in Grinnell. But that got me thinking, what if we shot arrows into other things to hear what it sounds like? Kenji was interested in the idea. Near the end of my time in residence, we set up a bunch of random materials in a barn and shot arrows at them to record the sound and video. This became the archery chimes prototype video. Being curious about making this more of a spectacle lead to sketching out ideas for instrumentation and control. I wanted to be able to catch the sounds in real time, quickly affect them and then develop soundscapes from the force and impact of the arrows on the different materials as well as the reaction of the materials after they are struck.
The impact. The force. The chaotic motion that eventually settles back into place when the targets are hanging. Visually the reaction of the materials was stunning. The sounds tend to be harsh and jarring. The goal of the performance is to make them less so. We also want to demonstrate the accuracy of Kenji’s arrow and explore how that can become a structure for instrumentation. The live recording and modification becomes a way to hold it all together and create something new to experience in a different time scale than the audio exists in the archery unaffected.
Then comes the question of what to shoot. We’ve played with various materials and while many sound amazing, many are also very destructive to the arrows and so they won’t work. I’ve started scouring around for things that we can put on display and then destroy and have found some pretty interesting things. I won’t get into too many details before the final performance is set but one thing that has happened is that as I am at home, school, the store, driving down the street, everything around me now begs the question “what would that sounds like if it were shot with an arrow?” It makes me wonder how things will break when hit and how different strike locations on the object might have different results altogether. It really changes how I situate things in my mind as I start categorizing the things I see. The groups become characteristics like: will resonate, will make a single thud, will be one shot only because it will break, might get more interesting as gets more destroyed, we shouldn’t shoot that, etc. It’s a completely different set of criteria by which I am viewing these objects. One of force, destruction and creative sonic potential of that force.
Compositionally, it makes me think of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique for composing. Except in this case it becomes even more strict. After each note is used, that key of the piano is obliterated.
This is an excerpt from a longer performance that I gave at Relish in Grinnell, IA on May 29th, 2013. This performance was created as part of my artist residency at the Grin City Collective.
All sounds are created from field recordings that I’ve made in various locations, including several from the Grin City Collective farm.
Several pairs of modified headphones were provided for the audience to have a different listening experience of the performed compositions.
This excerpt features Kenji Yoshino, Gideon Chase, Ezra Masch & Noah Breur on archery w/ special guest Carolyn Grace Scherf on lard for soap making.
There have been massive storms rolling through two nights in a row. I am such a fan of storms when outside of the city. They look and sound amazing. The whomp, gzzzzz, rumble with the flash and the counting for distance (5 seconds is about a mile) is definitely a favorite listening experience. Being outside of the city and experiencing intense storms such as these reminds me of the power of the natural world and there are things that no matter how we try, we humans just can’t control. We can’t make storms and we can’t prevent them. We can do our best to seek shelter but there are times when the storm decides to come inside too, as the basement in the second house on the farm fell victim too last night. The moment when the full realization takes hold that nature is still pretty well in charge is the moment when the power goes out, you hope it’s just a flicker, it stays off, and you realize after a couple minutes that you now don’t know if it will be minutes, hours or days until the power comes back on. In the early hours of this morning, the power went off for a couple hours making it very clear where I stood in the larger order of things. Luckily I had the storm to listen to with a sense of reverence and enjoyment.
I wonder if there is a name for stormfans like there is for railfans–who I’ve recently learned are called “foamers” by train workers. It’s not storm chaser because I don’t go looking for them. But when they descend upon me I thoroughly enjoy watching and listening. Here on the farm, the experience of these storms has been quite amazing. First, the openness of the farmland surrounding the house creates an expanse that allows the light and the sound to travel and reverberate all throughout the landscape. Similar to the wind, the effect of the lightning and thunder has very little mitigating it as the weather cell blows through. Adding to this are the characteristics of the house and the room that I am staying in. The farmhouse is over one hundred years old and it feels like it. With many bedrooms, a couple bathrooms and several closets and common areas, the house is open and many of the surfaces are hard, adding to the reverberation of the thunder as it reflects around the cavernous room in which I am staying. The room is also on the southwest corner of the house, meaning that it has been facing the majority of the storm activity rolling through the landscape. The lights are amazing. The sounds are beautiful. The storms are powerful. They wash the landscape with a range of frequencies as they rattle and resonate throughout the built structures. Hearing the old structures of the farm respond to the storm has been a really fascinating experience. With mostly indoor artist activity, the weather and its affect on the material of the farm has become another defining characteristic of the soundscape during my time here.
This morning a very large storm cell rolled through with claps of thunder so loud and violent that it woke most of us as it rattled the walls and windows of the 100+ year old house in which we were staying. A sharp reminder of something that I talk about great a deal when discussing the importance of listening. Our hearing does not turn off, even while we sleep. Evolutionarily, this was probably very important for millions and millions of years. Rest is important but so is remaining safe from predators and other dangerous elements. This storm also afforded me two other opportunities this morning to witness how important keen hearing is in this type of environment (the farm) in which maintenance and awareness of the facilities and resources is of key importance. Joe Lucina, founder and co-director of the Grin City Collective is also responsible for much of the upkeep of the house, property and buildings. This morning, he and I were sitting at the dinning room table eating and all of a sudden he jumped up and went out the to porch. What been a slight dripping sound from the ongoing deluge of rain suddenly made a different sound. It was subtle but it could have been something major. Turns out it was not a portion of the roof collapsing but instead something else that outside and on the roof, maybe a clogged cutter finally hitting the overflow point.Later in the morning, I was finishing my coffee and a chapter from a book I’m reading when all of sudden Joe came running down the stairs. It’s the weekend and him and I are the only ones in the Brick House and awake. From his upstairs studio, he had heard a noise outside in the strong wind that sounded out of the ordinary and when he looked out, noticed that the turkey pen he and Carolyn Grace Sherf had built was overturned by the wind and the small turkeys were walking around the yard. He raced out to make sure none of the birds were hurt or trapped and then he and I worked to flip it back over, heard the birds back in, and re-secure it using some heavy weight and few properly tied bowline knots. None of the birds escaped and once we cut some vents in the tarp roof to give some wind somewhere to go, the birds seemed perfectly safe and content.
Being connected to the soundscape of the farm is an important aspect of the work that is done here. I had a great conversation last night with Jordan Scheibel who runs a CSA garden from the Grin City farm called Middle Way Farm. During the open studio, he had tried on a set of my modified headphones made from hearing protection earmuffs. He told me a story about how when runs the till, it is incredibly loud and in order to reduce the risk of hearing damage from exposure, he wears earmuffs while using it. The other day, he was trying someone else to use it and let them use the earmuffs for their own comfort which provided him the chance to hear the machine running with open ears. “Holy shit that’s loud!” he said. He also realized just how much information was in that listening experience. He could better hear how the till was working and when it hit obstacles like glass or metal. He has no interest in operating this thing entirely without the use of hearing protection but the headphones that I created got him curious about other ways in which he might be able to mitigate the noise so that it is both less dangerous to his hearing yet maintains his connection to the sounds of the machine functioning.
Listening connects us to our environment. and provides information about what is happening around us. It warns of danger and provides us with pleasure. It lets us know if something is as it should be and can inform us if anything has gone wrong. Listening on the farm is a great experience for me as an agricultural tourist but last night and this morning reminded me that the necessary listening is as much functional as it is enlightening.
There’s a lot of wind here in Iowa. The Iowa drivers license even has a wind turbine featured prominently in the background image. Wind has the power to produce energy which means it has the power to create. As the very recent extreme weather events in Oklahoma show, it also has the power to destroy. Moving air causing moving objects creates a horrible path of destruction that one can’t even begin to imagine unless you’ve been through it.
Wind can be very strong. This morning, the wind flipped over the pen that was recently made on the farm to hold some young turkeys. Joe Lacina, co-director of Grin City Collective, and I were able to get it turned upright but it wasn’t easy. The wind continued to fight us the entire time. We eventually got it right-side-up and reinforced how it is anchored to the ground and created vents in the roof tarp so that the wind had somewhere to go in the hopes that the structure would become less sail-like. This demonstrated that wind can emphasize weakness of both design and structure.On the edge of the farm, there’s a metal shed that houses a small workshop with some loose corrugated roof panels that flap and bend when the winds are strong enough. The nails holding the panels in place are loose and the sheets of rusted metal lift and crash making a series of loud scraping, clapping, high-pitched grinding sounds in concert with the strength of the wind. I posted some sounds of this captured with contact mics in this earlier post.
Wind is not the friend of microphones. Mics record sounds by picking up vibrations, or changes in air pressure. If the air is moving, then it simply becomes a large amount of pressure hitting the microphone’s condenser. Wind on its own doesn’t make any sound. Bernie Krause describes this quite well in his book. We don’t hear the wind. Instead, we hear the results of the wind on something else. This might be grass, leaves, metal sheet roofing, natural resonance champers that make howling sounds or the wind’s affects on the condenser in a mic. The farm has been extremely windy during the day which at first was interfering with recording the birds and poultry stock that are here. It was, however, creating a few great sounds on its own. To record these sounds, I created two monaural contact mics that I could attach to different metal surfaces with magnets mounted inside the project housing. This made it possible to record the results of the wind, the vibrations of the metal sheet roofing, without recording the effects of the wind on a condenser mic.
The wind has become a defining feature of the landscape here during the residency. While getting settled into my studio space, I found that there were 2 old wind chimes crudely constructed from a series of steal pipes of varying lengths, some thin chain to suspend the elements and some basic acrylic shapes to act as both wind-responder and percussion implement. There’s something very elegant and logical about the construction of an instrument that performs the wind. It’s a responsive system that begins with an element of control through the defined material of the pipes, the lengths of which determine the pitch performed. However the structure of the performance is determined by the wind. Calm or active, the results reflect conditions occurring in the environment. It is not removed, or closed off. It is not working to separate itself from a larger natural structure. It is not too refined or all that imposing. It of course can be quite chaotic if the wind is intense or highly variable but on the whole, I find this interjection of a dynamic instrument waiting to be performed by nature quite harmonious with the space that I am encountering here during this residency.
All content ©2014 Alex Braidwood unless otherwise stated.
- mysterious hum
- sonic fiction