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Archive for the ‘sound’ Category

One of my favourite blogs at the moment is a podcast from the editor of LensWork – a photography publication from the States. I don’t subscribe to the magazine itself – I rarely keep up with periodicals anyway, but the weekly podcast has become a most eagerly awaited event each week. The editor, Brooks Jensen has a wonderful speaking voice which just exudes considered wisdom. Although each week his thoughts are centered on photography they are as much about approaches to art in general and a great source of contemplation. In the week when Grayson Perry’s much regarded Reith Lectures questioned ‘What is Art?’, Jensen recalls the opening paragraph from an early 20th Century book by Robert Henri – The Art Spirit:

“Art, when really understood, is the province of every human being. It is simply a question of doing things – anything – well. It is not an outside, extra thing”

What is art? It’s doing something really well. I like that.

In another post he talks about the Isaac Newton idea of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ – learning from the greats that go before you. But more than that, he talks about finding the artists who are trading the same path as you – your fellow travellers. The idea that as artists we are not alone in our direction and that there are others going the same way – and instead of looking at them as competitors they should be seen as companions.

gasometer oberhausen

THis week I found myself in the presence of my giants. I went to Germany to see a work by Christo and earlier today I played in my all time favourite piece of orchestral music – Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony. To most this probably doesn’t seem as much a deal as it was to me. I can’t express how significant both are to where I am now.

First up I travelled to Oberhausen in the Ruhr Valley in Germany (armed with my trusty Leica and virtual rolls of Ilford HP5plus) to see ‘Big Air Package’-. This piece is unusual for a Christo piece as it is inside, and also it’s been up since May. However, despite admiring all his work for years and all the apparent similarities between his and my work, I’d never actually seen any in real life.

big air package by christo

The Gasometer in Oberhausen, at around 100m tall, is now the largest space dedicated to showing art in Europe – bigger than both the Tate’s Turbine Hall, and Paris’ Grande Palais. Within that huge, post industrial space, Christo has created one of the largest single works of art. Standing at over 90m high, ‘Big Air Package’ does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s a big parcel of air wrapped up in PU-coated nylon (the same material I used for my Paviljong in Sweden last month) and bound with rope. The entire piece is kept up purely by a volume of air pumped in by constant fans.

It’s not a new idea – he made a number of ‘Air Packages’ back in the 60’s – the largest at Documenta ’68 took two large cranes to install and three abortive attempts to get the engineering right.

air package at documenta4

Christo and Jeanne-Claude 5,600 Cubicmeter Package, documenta IV, Kassel, 1967-68 Photo: Klaus Baum © 1968 Christo

The piece in Oberhausen is over 30 time the volume of that previous package. To me the interesting bit was how the piece filled the entire volume of the space in the Gasometer. I’ve been looking to do a piece that works on a similar level for a few years now, but so far none have managed to happen yet. The first was for a castle in Lancashire, the second for a victorian greenhouse in the southwest. For now they’re both on my ‘to be realised’ list and sure they will happen so long as I keep thinking they’re a good idea.

orangey visual

visual for a large inflatable piece inside a victorian orangery – now resigned to the ‘unrealised’ file

So it was good to see a piece like that realised. Of course, this was much much larger than any I’d planned to do. How many artworks have you been to recently where you can go up the side of it in a lift?

lift beside big air package

The volume inside was just as impressive. A vast white cathedral space. Very Kubrick. Very Turrel. But the whole experience bit was all very Christo.

inside the big air package

inside big air package

Down the road in the Ludwiggalerie at Oberhausen Schloss, there was a small exhibition of the original drawings and models of the ‘Big Air Package’. Uniquely, Christo funds all his large works entirely through the sale of preparatory drawings and models. It’s an elegant business model which I think I’ve written about before. Again, I’d seen pictures of these works on paper in books and on video but I’d never seen the real things. THere’s a real simplicity in his mark-making and incredible vision for how the final piece will look. The way the light works within that vast white space inside the package was so strikingly predicted in his drawings. THey’re both illustrations of engineering and things of great beauty in themselves. And so covetable – I could really see how his business plan works.

big air package drawings by Christo

detail of big air package drawing by christo

It’s the detail you get from a great work of classical music when you get to play in it. Listening to a performance or a recording is one thing. There’s that whole audio experience and where that takes you. But playing in one you get to see how it’s all made – the engineering bits that hold it together.

When I was doing my ‘O’ level music, the only thing I learnt, that I didn’t know before, was that Tchaikovsky was a raving queen who married an nymphomaniac. Emotional torment doesn’t even come close. It’s funny considering the current political stance in Russia that the writer of so much patriotic Russian music was gay. Don’t tell Putin. Shhh!

score cover

For me personally, Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. First performed just nine days before his death, it’s the pinnacle of his musical career. Although still in a traditional four movements, Tchaikovsky starts to twist the order of things. Before then the last movement was the big rousing finale – think Ode to Joy in Beethoven’s 9th, or the big tunes in Dvorak’s 9th. But for Tchaikovsky, the big rousing finale march comes in the third movement. He follows that up with one of the most incredible emotional bits of scoring in the forth. A big epic sweeping strings thing that just tears at the heart. The end, just a rumbling fade that leaves you exhausted.

Playing in the piece you get to see how he did it all. Tchaikovsky uses a lot of doubling up on tunes – with a number of different instruments playing the same thing, which detracts from the distinctiveness of individual instruments and creates entirely new palettes. Within these he plays around with the mix passing melodies and phrases across the mix, so as a listener you’re not entirely sure what instruments are playing what, it’s just a complete sound.

However, the bit that’s long fascinated me is the very start of that final movement. It starts with a soaring, emotional melody – the kind of thing that inspired a million film soundtracks.

However, no one actually plays the notes you hear. The first and second violins have slow, leaping  parts but your ear picks out a distinct melody from the two.

score of finale theme

How he ever worked out how that happens, I’ll never know. For me it’s just the epitome of his genius.

Today marks the 120th anniversary of the first performance of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony and his last performance.

I’m a big fan of Christo’s work and Tchaikovsky, although in many circles there’s a bit of snobbery that dismisses them both. For Christo he’s often dismissed as just pure spectacle with no substance. To many Tchaikovsky is ‘just ballet music’. Maybe it’s because of their accessibility that gets viewed as populist (as if that’s a bad thing anyway). What they both have in common is a desire for creating things of beauty. The art-world seems to have a problem with aesthetics – that things can be made just to be beautiful. Tchaikovsky was unapologetic in his desire to make music that was elegant, emotional and beautiful. ‘Big Air Package’, like all of Christo’s other work, doesn’t do anything else – it doesn’t move, or change colour or say anything about the place or materials, or the artists even. It’s just a thing of beauty – and that’s it.

But it’s beauty done really well.

And that’s art.

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It’s been a crazy week here. A two week residency is hectic enough. To research and build a whole new piece in two weeks is a little scary. To build a pavilion that people can go in and will last ore than my usual two week limit seems more than a little ambitious. To create a piece that responds to over 2,500 years of narrative. Well, that’s just nuts!

Well, sort of. I have to admit it’s not the first time I’ve created a piece from scratch in a matter of days. THere’s nothing like a tight deadline to raise the challenge and push the limits. The ‘Souvenir’ piece in Shanghai I first made back in 2006 was end to end in 10 days and I’m still really proud of that piece.

Souvenir in Shanghai

That first Shanghai piece also introduced me to the world of Chinese gardens. I’d kind of gotten into them through the Balls to Grasmere piece in the Lake District in 2005 and visiting Charles Jencks’ Garden of Cosmic Speculation near Dumfries. There’s a story in that too, but it’ll wait for another day as it’ll take me off this path.

Last year I got to work in Suzhou back in China and took the opportunity to visit some of the most important and oldest surviving Chinese gardens. In a nutshell, Chinese garden design is based on traditional Chinese landscape painting, which in turn is based on poetry and is founded on the human interaction with landscape. It’s both a physical and philosophical relationship and a series of ideas that go back over 2,000 years, yet in a bizarre convergence of thinking almost identical to that of English Romanticism born in the Lake District 200 years ago. In a similar resonance to the picturesque, Chinese gardens are built around a series of constructed views – each view as a framed image of the natural world – or at least conjures that up.

view of pavilions

Chinese gardens typically have a number of structures or pavilions in them. Each with a purpose and often very romantic names. The Master of the Nets Garden (1107 AD) includes a pavilion for looking at the fish, while in the Garden of the Humble Administrator – dating from a mere 1509 – there’s a “Who Shall I Sit With” pavilion and a ‘Pavilion for Listening to the Sound of Rain’. It sounds straight out of Cumbria yet pre-dates Wordsworth by 200 years.

Pavilion for Listening to Rain

There’s something very grounding about standing still and listening to the sound of the landscape. It’s something I’m increasingly drawn to on a few projects at the moment – including the piece I’m making for the God’s Bridge Project exhibition next spring.

A couple of days ago I went for a bike ride around the middle of Öland. Cycling and walking are great for getting to understand landscapes. Despite the apparent flatness of the island, on a bike you certainly feel every slight change in gradient and feel the lie of the land.

Karums Alvar

At Karum – just 6km from where I’m working – there’s a slight ridge in the land. It’s almost imperceptible driving along the road, but over 2,500 years the people who lived here and started farming the island noticed it too and had a reverence for it. The Karum Alvar is a plateau of limestone pavement. It seems strange that a high point of only 35m above sea level can be considered a plateau, but geologically it is very much one. Here the soil is very thin – only a few centimetres at most, and supports a micro ecology separate from most of the island. Like Widdy Bank Fell back in the North Pennines, here the plant life has an alpine feel to it, even though they’re not strictly alpine in nature. The landscape is dotted with yew and juniper trees growing out of what appears to be solid rock.

Noahs Ark

Up along the ridge is an impressive prehistoric graveyard. There are dozens of these stone graves – the bodies having been cremated, were buried under piles of rocks along with their treasured possessions – jewellery, swords, tools and food. Each grave marked with an upright marker stone. A slab of limestone pavement, or occasionally granite which look eerily like modern-day headstones. The most remarkable grave is ‘Noah’s Ark’ – a ship grave dating from around 1100 – 500 BC with stone posts fore and aft and appears to ride along the slight ridge from east to west between the coasts.

This is what Karums Alvar sounded like on Saturday:

It’s subtle (and a bit rough as just recorded on my phone) but none the less, it’s that gentle layer of sound that exists even in the quietest of places. This got me thinking about how I should respond to the forest here. How listening to the ambient sounds of a place can in some way connect you directly into it.

In the inter-war years – the 20’s and 30’s – a great deal of research was carried out around the world into the ability to locate advancing armies by listening to distant sounds. By exploiting the stereo field, left and right as well as up and down, you could get a quite accurate calculation of their position. The technology became RADAR, but for that short decade the ingenuity was amazing:

swedish listening device

Sadly I’ve not had the time to play around and experiment with these methods of listening for my pavilion. Instead I’ve been hacking some old telephones bought at the council clearance depot in Kalmar for  20 SEK a piece. The basics of how telephones work hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years so the circuits are really simple. Not got the sound quite right yet but had a good test of all the parts in the forest earlier.

speaker in the trees

Still to decide on a title for the piece, but it’s a pavilion for being at one with the forest. Somewhere quiet to sit and listen to the sounds and feel the movements of the place. I’m sure the title will come to me soon. It needs to. The invites go out in a bit and the farmer next door is already putting his pumpkins out for Skördefest. The pressure’s on…

pumpkins

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It’s been a while since I last revisited the ‘God’s Bridge‘ project. That’s part of the problem with long-term projects – other things come along and take over your brain space. With a shed-load more in-depth projects lurking on the horizon, I thought I’d get in quick and do a bit more before my brain gets swamped with engineering calculations and complicated maths again.

I last left the ideas looking at the underground nature of this geological anomaly in the North Pennines. It’s been an unusually dry summer here and tracing the route of the water isn’t going to happen if there’s just no water around. However, what it did do was allow me to get to bits that are normally inaccessible and have a poke around.

Gods Bridge over dry river

Last month I visited again with some proper kit to experiment with photos of those underground passages. This is what one of the tunnels looks like lit just with what little daylight gets down there. That’s one of the joys of digital photography. The Nikon sensors in particular are quite incredible in low light. In fact the light levels here were so low I couldn’t really see very far, yet with a few seconds exposure it has a whole new life.

River Greta underground

The colours are fairly natural, although I did process them through DxO to look like I shot them on Fuji Velvia – which I would have done back in the day. It has a lovely punch to the colours without being over saturated and is particularly flattering for UK landscapes – makes the blue sky a bit bluer and the green fields a little more lush.

Anyway, much as I love exploring the North Pennines through photography – I’ve got a whole chunk here on Flickr – I was looking for something else from this.

While following the riverbed back upstream to see if I could actually find some water, the air was suddenly full of birds. Not the sparrows and starlings of towns and villages, but Oystercatchers, Redshanks, Lapwings and Curlews:

The North Pennines are a lonely landscape – big swathes of nothing. A great place for solitude. Only remote places are rarely empty and certainly never silent. Birdsong has a strange way of summoning up landscapes. Take the distant call of peacocks:

Peacock

To me that’s all lawn and topiary.

In mid-spring a deciduous forest in Sweden sounded like this:

An nightingales are an incredible sound. They only sing for two weeks every year:

Birdsong is a fascinating thing. To start with, birds don’t whistle – they sing. The shape of their beak doesn’t come into it. It comes from the throat like us. Humans have a larynx – a bit of flappy tissue and muscle which vibrates in airflow and creates all the basic sounds we make. We further adapt them with our lips to form words for instance, but the singy bit is all voice-box. Birds on the other-hand have a syrinx. It’s a bit like a larynx, only it can make sound with air flowing in both directions – so birds don’t need to stop to take a breath. Many birds have a syrinx with two bits so they can effectively sing two different sounds at the same time. In a way they are the ultimate singing machine.

zebra finch syrinx

syrinx of a Zebra Finch

Recent research in the States have created an artificial syrinx and can emulate complex songs. There’s a bit on the BBC site here

Birdsong has been a primary source of influence to artists and composers for centuries with countless compositions based on familiar bird calls. From the 17th Century Athanasius Kircher who first transcribed the song of a nightingale into musical notation to the 20th Century French composer Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Catalogue d’Oiseaux’.

By far my favourite artworks on birdsong are ‘Dawn Chorus’ by Marcus Coates – where birdsongs were slowed down and mimed to by people in ordinary morning locations with the video finally sped back up to pitch:

and ‘Syrinx’ by Pamela Z – again the bird songs were slowed right down to a lower pitch and replicated by her voice, and then raised back up to the original pitch and speed.

However, that’s great for traditional song birds, but the sounds that fill my landscape are very different and more complex in different ways.

Oystercatchers and Redshanks are fairly straight forward. Lapwings are ubiquitous – also known as Peewits due to their mating call. However, their vocabulary is extremely varied and almost alien at times:

(the beating sound in that clip is a Snipe – it makes that sound with its tail)

By far the sound that best sums up the vast open landscapes of the North Pennines for me is the whirl of the Curlew. The sound comes from way up above and bubbles across vast distances. It trails off in a descending tone, a built in dopplar effect which seems to accentuate the vastness of the landscape.

This clip has been filtered to remove lots of the background noise and other birds. It’s really difficult to just get the pure sound of a Curlew.

Messiaen captured the call of the Curlew and its sorrowful loneliness over the fells like this:

messiaen-curlew

It’s still got that trill element and the rising tone – represented as glissandos over a decaying drone chord. It’s got a melancholy about it that feels right and is a beautiful invocation, but it’s not the sound of a Curlew.

To figure out how the real sound is made I slowed the filtered recording right down to a manageable pitch and speed:

You get an idea of its construction from this sonogram of one of the repeated call sections:

curlew call spectrogram

From that I transcribed a basic score. I’ve done it in 3/4, but on reflection it’s probably 6/8. and an alto flute I figure is fairly close.

curlew-song2-1

so, I got the software to play it, sped it back up and it sounds like this:

Terrible.

So unbelievably bad. Though not really surprising – art is never simple. Making good art is hard work. OK, so it wasn’t a real flute playing in the first place – just a sequenced sample so lacks that natural element. Even so, this emulation of upland birdsong is far more complicated than I thought. Yet fascinating all the same. It’s going to take quite some time to get this right. I’m still not fixed on the idea of a perfect replication. I quite like Messiaen’s feeling for the bird and may yet go down that route, but there’s still something about challenging yourself and pursuing it until you get it just right and until I really have to dedicate my brain space to engineering calculations, I think that’s what I’ll do for now.

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