Devin DiSanto’s previous release “Tracing a Boundary” worked by collecting the sounds produced by various activities undertaken in a certain situation, some being traditionally ‘musical’, others less obviously so. “Three Exercises”, his new work with Nick Hoffman for Erstwhile sublabel ErstAEU, goes further in the direction of the ‘less obviously so’. The situation in question on the new release is the gym hall of an elementary school, where the artists undertook a series of ‘exercises’ of which the album forms audio documentation. The track listing refers to both ‘exercises’ and ‘sequences’, but I couldn’t really hear a clear distinction between the two types of activity, so I’ll refer to them all as ‘exercises’ for simplicity’s sake.
For most of the album’s duration, intermittent clunks, clatters, bangs, scratches, and pops testify to the performing of unseen activities. These are occasionally buried in a thick, grungy burst of electronic noise. There are formal similarities, it would seem, to the text scores of the Fluxus group and related artists: the performance consists of following a set of instructions that may involve modifying the space, moving or rearranging objects, reading from a list of words, or some other programmatic activity. In this sense, the term ‘exercise’ is appropriately applied. Although in “Three Exercises” the activities are unseen, now and then a voice belonging to one of two observers (writers Justin Palmer and Sharon Glassburn) will describe what is happening, in a tone ranging from the matter-of-fact to the drowsy or uncertain. Tape distortion distinguishes these voices from vocalisations that are part of the exercises. This narration keeps the attention focused on the exercise being performed, on the fact that someone is doing something, dissuading any hearing of the sounds as decontextualised objects-in-themselves.
Two questions come to mind. The first is whether sound production can be considered primarily as a form of labour, like the production of cars or canned fruit or razor blades, or the assembly of flat-packed furniture. Or the inverse: could any form of labour be considered as a form of sound production, as the performance of music? The clank and whirr of the production line has long been an inspiration for field recordists and socially-committed composers alike; this line of thinking just takes it one step further. To this might be added: could music also be a byproduct of nonhuman activity, such as glaciers melting, or the dispersion of electromagnetic fields? Need the labourer be the centre of interest in labour? The articulation of music as labour would seem to open up many different avenues for thought.
The second question is whether video might have made for more effective documentation of the exercises undertaken by DiSanto and Hoffman. Would being able to see the activities being performed result in a greater connection and engagement with the piece? (I’m thinking perhaps of something like Hennies, Odom and O’Neill’s film “Clots”, recently released by Weighter Recordings.) “Tracing a Boundary” seems to oscillate between sound-as-byproduct and sound-as-object, thus always keeping at least one foot in an explicitly aural aesthetic; with “Three Exercises”, I think I might have enjoyed it more as a live performance where I could actually see what was going on. That’s not to say that the album isn’t enjoyable in its purely audio format, however: as an experiment in how sounds can be produced and organised, with a focus on the material and the doing that sets it some way apart from the political agitations of Fluxus, while nonetheless remaining in some sense subtly political, the work is a compelling and thought-provoking document.