Memory is a hot topic in experimental music. Leyland Kirby, who’s work as The Caretaker has had one of the biggest impacts on the mainstream consciousness of any experimental artist in recent years, interrogates the subject repeatedly. In a recent interview with Fluid Radio, William Basinski theorised that “memories are loops”, repeating feedback that needs to be resolved – or that change over time, as does Basinski’s music. This is not just the experimental world tapping in to the trend for retrospection that has held for the last few years, although that may be one partial explanation. There is a scientific link between music and memory; for example, music is known to trigger memory recall in Alzheimer’s sufferers, which was explored in The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World. Sound artists are often interested in scientific process and the human consciousness, so it is unsurprising that memory appears so often.
Danny McCarthy doesn’t quite conform to either Kirby or Basinski’s (or really any other) model. For him the interest in memory is intensely personal. A member of the small, intimate audience at an ‘in conversation’ event for his installation at SoundFjord, London, asks him about the current interest in past and place. McCarthy’s response is that he has no great theory about it, but he talks about an ongoing project in which he will be photographing places where he used to collect records. For him place, sound, memory and his own personal history are inseparable. Or, he jokes, “maybe it’s just because people are getting older”.
The installation, titled The Memory [box] Room, and its accompanying book and CD, just called The Memory Room, are very much rooted in McCarthy’s past. The project started at Hilltown New Music Festival in Ireland where, having been invited to create a piece, McCarthy was struck by the stables at the location and resulting memories of his father who was a blacksmith. The first iteration of the installation was just a page of text, a lightbulb and a broken music box in one of the stable rooms. That music box still forms the centrepiece in the current exhibition, along with an array of other objects – sepia photographs hung on the walls, a toy hare, scattered coloured triangles, an old Star Wars tape. McCarthy calls the music box the “ghost music box”: “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s the beauty of it, it has a life of its own.”
This idea of fragments is at the centre of the installation. The incomplete music box melodies mirror distant, incomplete memories. Similarly, the eight minutes of music McCarthy recorded for the project comprises simple drones and static, interrupted by the occasional wavering, inharmonious note and frequent passages of near silence. In the book he writes “it’s the cracks between the silence I’m interested in”, the sometimes apparently random sparks of memory that might not seem to fit at first, but in the end are lovely just as they are. The music evokes this perfectly, the pleasure of remembering for its own sake. This fragmentary state is the ideal state for memories. As McCarthy says, “if it was completed it would probably be ruined”.
Although they are fragmentary, however, the sounds, objects and memories of the installation are not isolated. The connections between the objects in the room may not be explicit, especially since their personal significance to McCarthy will never be known to the audience, but they are all joined together by the simple fact of their collection in the same space and, more importantly, by the visitor’s interaction with them. As you wander around them, they trigger your own memories – the Star Wars tape, for example, makes me think of when my father first showed me the films, and the old decoration of our house. The installation symbolises this with coloured ‘memory threads’ hanging from the ceiling, connecting you to the room, occasionally literally by tangling in your hair. McCarthy uses the phrase “resonating memories”. Remembering is not contained to one person. He tells a story about a photograph in the book of him and some friends playing in a shed and how he met, without any intention, the man who owned the shed after completing The Memory Room project, sparking new recollections in him. McCarthy is full of these sorts of stories of coincidences and encounters. A particularly fascinating one for me is of how his mother used to carry around a tape recorder where most people would have cameras, recording people talking and singing, which in turn makes me think of the handheld recorder I take with me these days and all the places it’s been. The chain of memory flows on.
As well as changing with each visitor, the installation changes depending what angle you look at it from, with a fluidity that recalls the changing currents of thought, or how different memories can seem from a new perspective. Viewed from one corner, the scattered triangles take the foreground and the whole room seems brighter. From another, the hiss of static from a speaker, inaudible in other parts of the room, draws attention to faded photographs and casts the haphazard arrangement of objects as decay and the wearing of time. The room changes again during McCarthy’s performance at the end of the afternoon along with Farpoint Recordings and Hilltown curators Anthony Kelly and David Stalling. In one of the more abrasive passages the coloured threads seem incongruously bright, almost offensive against the harsh sound.
The Memory [box] Room is also interested in the interplay of sound and objects, aside from memory. McCarthy talks about his old family home and “using sound activated microphones and contact mics run along the floor to pick up its own sound”. As if to back up his point, the gallery door creaks throughout the talk. The installation reveals sound in seemingly silent objects. One of the pictures is of a little boy and girl whispering. There is innocence and prettiness in the picture, but there is also sound. What thought, or memory, is being spoken is probably long lost now, but McCarthy offers a musical reinterpretation of that fragment as preserved in the photograph – translating a visual memory into a new sonic one.
The whole project is concerned with the sonic, artistic possibilities of objects like this one, many of which were found in markets or other places of curiosities. Indeed, the room has been added to a few times since being set up at the SoundFjord gallery. McCarthy says he wants to find “new poetry in, or from, old objects”, which the visual part of the installation certainly achieves, and which is echoed in the music just as well, the crackle of static and the considered, deliberate silences evoking a graceful age partnered with the modernity of atonal bleeps. In keeping with this idea of newness and artistic reinvention, the installation has changed repeatedly across its many iterations. Of his use of found objects and the make up of the gallery, McCarthy says: “You can’t control it, it just has to happen. There is an intrinsic harmony. It’s a question of being open to influences, you can’t contrive it.” In many ways, The Memory [box] Room is an improvised installation. It is rarely the same twice, dependent on McCarthy’s own additions or changes, the visitor that happens to be passing through it, how they respond to the objects and trigger their own memories, and even on where they happen to be standing. There are constants of course, the objects do not actually move and the music remains the same, but there are so many variables that it could hardly be called the same piece – it is recreated by artist and audience alike.
The theme of improvisation carries into McCarthy, Kelly and Stalling’s performance at the end of the event. McCarthy says that his playing is “very much about listening. I genuinely don’t know what instrument I’m going to hit first or what sound I’m going to make”. He has a lot to choose from. Arranged in front of him are pedals, a small pink guitar, rocks, slate and other ephemera. Kelly and Stalling have an array of samplers, a tape player, little pipes, more ephemera and something played by brushing one or more wires that stick out from it. This last makes a fantastic sound, ranging from delicate and half-melodic when only one or two wires are used, to a dense wave of noise when all of them are. The performance takes a roughly upward trajectory from sparse flickers to a vast wall of sound at the end, spending time in the intervening passages circling round individual noises, exploring their possibilities and the reactions of other sounds to them. The dissonant pipe melodies and scraping of rock and slate, amplified and put through various effects are particularly effective. In the final climax, McCarthy turns one of these slates on the guitar, churning a terrible but compelling grating from the strings.
It is telling that even in this improvised performance individual fragments and the latent sounds of unconventional objects are never far from the performers’ minds. McCarthy, Kelly and Stalling offer up another set of sounds to trigger memories, or sights to trigger sounds – you wonder what their first thought at seeing something is, ‘that looks nice’ or ‘I wonder what that would sound like’? McCarthy’s installation, with its masterful convergence of physical objects, music inspired by them and the resonating memories of both, is a perfect setting.
The Memory [box] Room runs at SoundFjord until 7th June. The Memory Room book and CD can be purchased at Far Point Recordings.
– Matt Gilley for Fluid Radio