A couple of weeks ago in Belfast, I listened to a presentation by sound-maker Sara Pinheiro about the use of sound in narrative arts, for which the speaker drew on her background as a foley artist for film and video art. Pinheiro contended that when we speak of narrative at work in a piece of music or sound art, what we usually mean is that the sounds refer back to another medium (usually text) which is responsible for carrying the narrative content, and which the sounds merely illustrate or embellish. As a counterpoint to this tendency, Pinheiro advocated for the staging of what she termed ‘sound fiction’, in which the event of the sound sounding constitutes the story being narrated — an act not so much of composition as of dramaturgy.
Fast-forward to last night, and to Birmingham’s VIVID Projects, where ACM Ensemble and Joe Snape presented another way of approaching the problem of how to work with narrative in a sonic context. Instead of seeking to sever any textual references from the sounding of sounds, the solution they proposed in the piece “Fleck, Flob, Flop” was to dramatise the text by way of live typing on a projected screen, folding it into the performance event. The accompanying music, composed by Snape and adapted from his recent album “Brittle Love”, was performed by Vitalija Glovackyte on various electronics, Michael Cutting on violin, glockenspiel, and samples, Michael Perrett on clarinet, and Otto Willberg on bass, with Snape himself live-typing a multi-stranded story he had written together with artist filmmaker Sarah Hill. A number of characters across multiple locations in space and time met, did battle, fell in love, and dispersed again, all narrated by Snape’s keyboard (the QWERTY one).
I stand by comments previously made on Snape’s music: it’s hard not to be charmed by the sense of joy, wonder, and imagination that permeates it. A friend commented that more contrasts across the hour-long piece wouldn’t have gone amiss, and I agree; there’s more that could be done with the instruments available, and the emphasis on melody and rhythm sometimes left me wanting more textural and harmonic development (more attention to the sounding of the sounds, perhaps). None of this prevented a packed-out audience from being riveted by the fragmented, multi-threaded stories accompanied by colourful and lively music, or from bursting into rapturous applause at the end. The sheer exuberance and commitment of the piece and its performers is what brought the narrative to life and made it believable; if the individual vignettes sketched out with words and sounds stubbornly refused to cohere into a greater whole, perhaps it’s because for the characters depicted, no such whole could be found.
Glovackyte and Cutting later presented works of their own: the former a classic tape collage in which the artist debates humourously with herself the process of creating the work; the latter an ensemble piece of shaky beginnings that eventually settled into a lovely low-key ambience punctuated by plucked harmonics from Willberg’s acoustic bass. Darren Joyce (he of Modified Toy Orchestra fame) closed the evening with an audiovisual set that opened up the space of memory through home video footage and audio recordings made by family members for each other: a perfect way to honour the wealth of meaning in everyday domestic moments. At one point, Joyce picked up a microphone for a spot of Elvis-in-Vegas crooning, creating the most haunting and uncannily intimate moment of the night.
I find myself convinced by Pinheiro’s suggestion that the event that is a sound, or a series of sounds, can contain all the narrative one needs, simply by virtue of its sonic properties and its mode of occurring. It doesn’t need to be a sound of something, in this sense. This is far from the only valid approach to storytelling with sounds, however, especially if one is prepared to give text, images, or some other additional medium equal footing. With “Fleck, Flob, Flop”, Snape and ACM have created an enchanting and multifaceted performance, the delight and surprise of which goes beyond mere novelty; one gets the impression of bigger things ahead.
Image by Andy Sawyer