Listening Garden

artworks-000020611793-0fei0o-original

(revisited)

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Distant sounding swells are joined by a bubbling loop, droplets of sound overlap with clicks and ringing tones. All the time, a background space that feels far removed from the hard-drive edit – the sealed, ultra-real presence of modern electronics. Listen closely, and there are voices, the occasional clatter of cutlery. Sounds move from the specific foreground to the general background – there is the sense of these little stretches of colour existing alongside human activity. This is Listening Garden, by Taylor Deupree and Christopher Willits, released by Line in 2007. Assembled from recordings of the Listening Garden installation created by Deupree and Willits at the YCAM arts centre in Yamaguchi, Japan in June 2004, we can see the recorded, physical version as a slice of activity, a thirty-four minute stretch of space, that offers a glimpse of the original artwork.

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What is the distance travelled between installation, film score, dance soundtrack and the realization of this music and sound on a record or compact disc?

One view is that we lose something when the journey is made – that the art is always flattened, diminished – it can’t possibly recreate the experience of “being there”. And if you weren’t there in the first place, how can you soak up that atmosphere, the light, the images on the screen, the smells of the hall even, from a little shiny plastic disc? I’m exaggerating a little, and focusing on the idea of the ‘live album’, but there is a sense that this argument over-privileges sight, and primary experience over memory, feeling and the impression of a piece.

This is the question always implicit in documentation – is it always the poor cousin to art, or can it function more as a re-telling of the original event? Or can we gently sidestep context altogether, and take these records at face value?

Of course, if we take these records on a case-by-case basis (as seems sensible), we return some context to the equation – when we encountered these recordings, what we knew about them at the time, and what we know about them now.

For example, I love the album ‘S’ by Sylvain Chauveau – a brief collection of abstract piano flurries, high pitched electronics, and stately, vibrato guitar. For a couple of years, I streamed it from the Type website, usually at work, enjoying its spaciousness, its well placed sounds. I finally got hold of a physical copy earlier this year, and found it was composed for choreography by French dancer Serge Ricci. The spaces on the record immediately suggested new things – movement, yes, but also a new suggestion of how physical actions may or may not align with sonic events; a thought that led me to dig out images of Merce Cunningham dancing, with Cage and Tudor hunched over alien boxes of wires. Finally, this Merleau-Ponty quote from Ricci’s website: “My body is a thing among things”.

So, on one hand, I haven’t seen the dance piece (beyond a few grainy clips online) – I haven’t heard the slap of foot on stage, seen the fluid gestures and sudden stops that make up the motion of the dancers, but I have been drawn back to the Cunningham/Cage/Tudor axis that still informs thinking in contemporary dance and music; I have discovered a new artist, I have thought again about the body, in a space surrounded by objects. So the context here, for me at least, is a starting point, rather than the full stop of a simple document.

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Imagine drinking tea, reading a book.

Your feet rest on wooden floors, your table is surrounded by glass and trees, and instead of a ceiling, there is only sky. A space for sitting quietly – these ‘tea spaces’ at YCAM are the location of the original installation.

“Because these spaces are used for reading, studying, thinking,” says Deupree, “we had to do something that was quiet and unobtrusive, as the music would play continuously for a few months. The important goals were to make sure that every layer and piece we made could work with every other one because they would play randomly on the multi-channel soundsystem, overlapping and looping.”

Listening to the recorded version of Listening Garden, you can hear this open-endedness embedded in the way the loops rise and fall, the way the washes of gentle noise slide into the space, without drowning anything out.
“Chris and I got together to create a bunch of sound together – recording for hours in my Brooklyn studio, and when we were done we took the material by ourselves to generate many quiet, short works”

“We had so much material from recording Audiosphere 08 and Mujo,” adds Willits. “We took that extra material and began to rethink how we could place the sounds into the space.” And while Listening Garden draws from the same well as those records, it is the placing of those sounds – blips, traces of grainy guitar, clouds of tones – that distinguishes the record.

Multiple speakers were placed around the space – some hung high up around the glass walls, some hidden under the slatted wooden floor. All the sounds, prepared as ‘surround’ files, contained the many layers that would be randomly piped throughout the spaces, creating a constantly changing addition to the environment. “We worked for a few days on speaker placement” remembers Deupree “the staff worked tirelessly to make sure everything was perfect. In the end it was such a nice environment, with sound emanating quietly from all around the room.”

I asked Taylor and Chris about the functional elements of the installation – thinking in particular of Brian Eno’s original statement on ambient music:

“Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think. Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting”

“The idea of the installation was, yes, to serve as “functional” music,” agrees Deupree “Music to enhance the experience of being in this space. Music that at the same time can be mediated upon and listened to carefully as well as not being distracting if you’re reading or studying. Striking this balance was the main challenge.”

“We definitely wanted to create a piece that people could soak into,” adds Willits. “We wanted the music to be like lighting in the space, altering the feel, warming the walls, setting a gentle energy in the room that encouraged the occupants imagination.”

Sound acting as a gentle enhancement to a space – not the ‘enhancements’ of free wifi, or sponsored zones, just a gradually changing sound – shifting as you walk through the space – perhaps in the sunshine, perhaps in rain showers – and different each time you return. None of the familiar hooks and earworms of canned pop music, re-spun classical moments, just slowly evolving detail.

How best to imprint this impression on disc? And why try, when a simple cd might sound hopelessly flat compared to the installation?

“[making a cd version] was probably always part of the plan, or at least an idea we had early on. As we realized how special of an event it was we were certain we wanted to document the memories with a CD release, as much for ourselves as for listeners. The CD is only a slice of the original experience. It’s a static, stereo recording of what was a 2-room, multichannel experience. Being there, in Yamaguchi, in those rooms, (sometimes in the rain) was magical.

We had asked the staff helping us there to record the room over the course of the months the installation would be there. They set up microphones in each space and proceeded to record high resolution files for us over the following weeks at various times of the day. Sometimes you’d hear people talking, or the rain falling. At one point a man came in and played shakuhachi along with the music. We have that recorded. A few months later YCAM sent us 24 DVDs full of high resolution audio – an astounding amount of recordings! It was then our task of going through all of this material and editing it down to a piece for CD”

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Other examples – picking up Machinefabriek’s Colour Tones might lead you to the fairy tales of Imants Ziedonis, or the work of curators Anthropologists in Art. Black To Comm’s Earth soundtrack points you naturally at the original film by Ho Tzu Nyen, but might suggest you rediscover baroque European painters, as well as wander sideways towards the lieder styled songs of Vindicatrix. So these records lead us beyond mere ‘appreciation’ of the document, to wider pastures.

Make no mistake, these are powerful records, more than capable of standing alone, but might there be an argument in looking at these kinds of records as floating, unfixed points – allowing both artist and listener to move beyond what we would normally expect, beyond business as usual? Perhaps we are more prepared these records to meet halfway – to seek out their frames of reference, their context.

But, and this is where subjectivity creeps back in, we are only prepared to go that step further if the record can stand alone. If I feel the artefact is underwhelming, whatever the context, I’m unlikely to investigate further. The distance travelled becomes too far. One for completists only.

Another personal example – I recently tracked down the soundtrack to Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 film Diva. I’ve been a fan of the film for years – I love the way the music seems to drip with rain in the long shots, and how the film is about the recording, the fixing of voices. On its own, however, great as the soundtrack is (a mix of opera, Satie pastiches and digi-French music), for me, it only points back to the film, it does seems less complete without the images.

Another piece – 5 Sound Installations by Michael J Schumacher, is at the other end of the spectrum. Rather than a cd or record, these pieces exist as software to install on your computer, which you then hook up to your hi-fi, monitors or surround system. Each piece is programmed algorithmically to be different each time you start the program up. Radical speaker placement is encouraged. The idea is to live inside these pieces, as part of your home. Investigating furniture music yes, but also the idea of the salon – spaces where music, art and literature are presented in the home. Here, context is everything. The exact time you encounter the fractures and sweeps of sound making up Noema, or the concrète smudges of Scene, the precise position you left your speakers in, whether you have company, the sounds of the pieces meshing with the sound of tea being poured out. Because they are different each time, these five pieces – longform, undulating, immersive – overlap with your listening situation in a way that could be compared to the focused listening require at free-improvisation performances, where moment-to-moment decisions unfold before your ears. Of course, one could argue that Schumacher’s algorithmic compositions are easy to assimilate, to ignore at will – because they are so open, so un-fixed, because there are no hooks for our memory to latch onto, but as opposed to the film soundtrack tied permanently to its source, these pieces point outwards, to everything.

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The splutter of a child’s laugh. Gentle rain. Is that the rattling of catering trolleys, or excavated scratches from Deupree and Willits’ archive? Buried under a wobbling loop on the third piece are tiny, tiny fragments of what sounds like piano practice in another room entirely – a few minutes later, the same sounds resemble the first tentative steps inside the body of the instrument – a sharp ‘ping’ of hammered string.

Listening Garden on disc is only 33 minutes long, but I’m constantly surprised how having it on repeat never becomes boring; the gaps and spaces in each collection of sounds, as well as the subtle way the layers move from the foreground to the background, mean that the sounds of my house – the cat shifting position on a pile of newspaper, the ticking of the clock, the sounds of my partner typing next door – blend into the whole. The fact that the British weather has finally become summery, with all the attendant noises – neighbour’s barbeques, council lawn-movers – the fact that I am not, in fact, enjoying my sencha in a Japanese tea room, open to the air, doesn’t really enter into how this recording works for me. Its not there to transport me anywhere, it exists alongside everything I’m doing today. Context.

I asked Taylor and Chris about this, about context, about the importance of the story – the importance of our knowledge as listeners, and their experience as the artists.

“The context for this particular CD release is very very important. It was a CD made about a very specific event and that guided the creation from the beginning.” However, Taylor adds “For this CD there are probably people out there who don’t know much about the context, and simply enjoy it as a piece of music, and there are people who were actually there to hear the real thing who can use the CD as a memory, just like Chris and I do.

It’s always nice to have a little bit of backstory about how something was created, it helps you connect with the artists on some level and to try to feel what they were feeling when they created it, but it’s not a necessity for being able to enjoy something”

“I don’t think it’s important at all.” thinks Chris “Once someone listens to this work, the intention of our decisions, our creative process, transcends words or history and becomes part of that person’s experience.
Perhaps our intention of creating a relaxing space shines through to that individual, or perhaps it becomes something totally different.”

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So, whatever the intention, we find that this floats out of reach once artworks encounter the real world. This can seem particularly true for works that are not ‘the whole story’ – we can seek out origin points, or use them as functional objects as our needs dictate. Or both.

A final note of context.

As I’ve been writing the last paragraphs of this piece, the sun has dipped behind some clouds, I can see the cat sleeping outside, I can hear Holly in the next room making a birthday card for a friend, and the warm end notes of Listening Garden drift into silence, leaving only the sounds of my room.

Thanks to Taylor and Chris for their time.

Listening Garden / Taylor Deupree + Christopher Willits / Line_32 / available digitally here

"John Boursnell writes about sound and music. He likes small sounds, small spaces & musique concrète."

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