Whispering Tree and Tongues (formerly known as Imagined Polyphonies)

Recently I was part of Prayer House which was a drop in room for prayer at Spring Harvest in Minehead. We had step various stations for people to aid people in their prayer. I set up two installations. One was the whispering tree. I hung 10 stereo speakers (so 20 in total) up and a bible verse played through three different voices through each speaker. The volumes were kept low to keep a sense of the tree that whispers.

Trees in some ways bookend the bible with the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the beginning and the Tree of life at both ends. The whispering was about conveying that the bible is in some sense alive and sounding; bubbling beneath the surface. This was the poster next to the work.

Here are a couple of images


and a hasty video

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I also put up Tongues. It was a slightly reconstituted piece from Imagined Polyphonies. Rather than start with Malayalam I started with the English. This was the poster that went with it.

And an image.

I’m not sure what people thought of it. In one sense for many it would have been a new experience in listening and possibly would have taken a while to articulate what they felt. My shyness meant I didn’t ask either. But quite a few people seemed to spend time on the works.

The other stations/installations were very engaging as well and I felt that everything sat together well. Great work from the whole team at engageworship!

How I listen is how I understand

Back in the 80s I was telling my friends how much I loved the Ghostbusters theme tune.

And I sang (not very well) what I thought was the tune. I sang this bit below.

And my friends laughed. They said ‘No!’ It goes like this…

What had happened was that I had sung(?) the bass line to the intro while they had rendered what was the melody. I think I’ve always heard music like that. The bass lines and the harmonies were what did it for me. For whatever reason I always sung the bass parts in the choir and ended up becoming a bassist for a band.

I think the way I listen to music is also how I perceive the world. I’m always interested in what’s behind the ‘melody’; what’s behind what has happened. So when an incident happens like… when my daughter leaves her clothes on the floor. I go into what can be described as an overanayltic mode. I wonder why she did this and the reasons behind this and so on without actually dealing with what’s in front; the offending pieces of clothing on the floor.

Obviously when things happen elsewhere, whether it’s in the news or in church or work I’m always listening to what’s going on behind. There are many people like this but for me the interesting point is that this way of perceiving the world as a whole is fully resonant with how I listen to music.

It’s only recently I’ve truly started to appreciate melody and interestingly this seems to be playing out in my wider life in that I’m trying to be more in tune with the moment. So I wonder whether others have spotted any resonance between their way of listening to music and their way of perceiving the world. Anyone?

Imagined Polyphonies

This was a piece I made for the Kochi Bienalle 2017 as part of CRiSAP.

Background

I come from a community from Kerala known as the Syrian Christians. It is not altogether clear where our geographical origins are from but the religious practices originate from the Syrian rites that the Christian communities in Syria formulated in the early history of Christianity.

The legend that we grew up with was that one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, St. Thomas brought Christianity to Kerala. It is a disputed story but it is one that interests me. Since then the community has gone through various bifurcations in its religious makeup with arrival of the Portuguese and the British versions of Christianity. So Syrian Christians in Kerala can be Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican or Pentecostal.

Our community therefore has a set of histories that I want to explore. The bible is still the central text to all these traditions and so I want to explore these diverse histories through a narration of the stories of Babel and Pentecost.

Babel and Pentecost

I’ve chosen the texts of Babel and Pentecost because of the presence of the multilingual in the story. Babel is the story where the people try to create this fantasy of unity building up a monolithic and awefilled entity that sees across the world. This has strong resonances today where there are groups of powerful people trying create a uniform and controlled world where they might exercise their power influence as they see fit. God however scatters these people because their first call in Genesis is to go out into the world and engage with it. Language is supposed to be a response to environment but in the story of Babel, God disturbs the language first. Opposing their monistic desire to be great and not to be scattered, God enforces a plurality on the people. This plurality causes confusion and they go their separate ways. This confusion continues as we find it difficult to come to terms with the difference of others and the difference we have with our own selves.

In Pentecost there is a reversal. This is not a reversal of plurality. The plural is preserved. Those of different languages aren’t brought together back into one language. Instead the Holy Spirit provides understanding. Difference is now acknowledged, accepted and most importantly understood.

I wanted to portray the multilayered nature of Kerala Syrian Christian identity, by reading these texts. We often try and have a tower of Babel identity. A single story that stands tall and proud and is unified. However this tower is always under threat of being scattered. There are stories and facts that don’t fit. In the scattering we either discard or ignore or marginalise what doesn’t fit with the tower.

Pentecost allows us to get back into an acceptance of difference and acknowledge that it is possible to bring conflicting sounds together.

The Sound

I recorded readings of these texts in Greek, Portuguese, English and Malayalam. For the Pentecost reading I added another voice; that of Peshitta Aramaic. Greek is there because the New Testament was originally written in Greek and Christianity is steeped in the cosmopolitan Greek culture of the 1st and 2nd century AD. Aramaic is there because it is the language of the Syrian rites and is also the closest to what we know of how Jesus himself spoke.

Do have a listen and let me know what you think. Also if I have made some error in the languages biblical texts do let me know. Thanks!

And thanks to those who read these texts!

Breathing in

I’ve been working on a piece with multiple voices. As part of the compositional process I was trying to capture the breath of the voices. Now when we record breath, if it’s an outward breath, the recording devices find it hard to capture it. This has to do with the nature of sound itself, since sound is dependent on the movement of air. So capturing wind that moves upon the recording device normally doesn’t sound that great.

However if the breath moves away from the device, I can capture a more faithful record(ing) of the sound. So within the piece, I started capture the sounds of breathing in. The voices were amongst other things, reading out the story of Pentecost, where the narrative speaks of God’s Spirit coming upon the early church.

God’s Spirit is his breath. A lot of the characterisation of the Spirit is as someone who comes upon people giving them gifts and energy to do things. This is a breathing out of God. However is there any sense in which God breathes in?

Well, God smells. This statement is necessarily ambiguous because smell itself is ambiguous. However here it means that God smells what we do. And smell happens because of an intake of breath. God smells the fragrance of sacrifices. The first mention of God smelling is Gen 8:21 with Noah. There are loads of verses in Leviticus: 1:9, 2:2, 3:5 and so on. It’s dotted through the rest of the Old Testament clearly echoed in Ephesians 5:2 and Phillippians 4:18. There is the more ambiguous story in John 12:3 where Mary anoints Jesus with the perfume.

This intake of breath is part of God’s relationship with us. It is almost a benchmark of relationship where things done to ruin the relationship are considered a stench. However beyond the realm of smell is there a sense in which God breathes us?

Not as dramatically as Jesus breathing upon his disciples. However, there is a sense in which the Spirit is breathing with us (Romans 8) and drawing the whole of creation back to God. In a meta-sense this is God’s breathing in. Our prayers are breathed into God by his own breath. As he gives life, he draws us into his life. We are being breathed in by God.

Intimacy with another has a lot to with smell. When I give my wife and daughters hugs I take their smell in. I take them in. Their presence infuses my body as I breathe them in. So can we say that God smells us into himself. As we sacrifice ourselves he breathes us deep into his own self.

As a pleasing odor I will accept you, when I bring you out from the peoples, and gather you out of the countries where you have been scattered; and I will manifest my holiness among you in the sight of the nations

Ezekiel 20:41

Duccio’s Altar Piece (Voiced)

Over the last week I got to put a piece up in the Prayer House at the festival Spring Harvest.

The piece is based on Duccio’s Triptych of the Crucifixion. I used the central panel as the basis of the piece.

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The characters in this panel are voiced through scripture readings and music. The installation represented the picture by placing speakers in the respective spaces of the characters.

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The angels (the speakers at the top) produce music in a simple generative way. The phrasing is based on J. S. Bach’s St. John’s Passion 27c which is the scene of Jesus speaking to his mother and the beloved disciple.

The bottom three speakers voice scriptures from the characters. The beloved disciple voices the prologue of John (John 1:1-14). Mary voices her hope that she sang in the Magnificat. (Luke 1: 46 – 55). Jesus utters the traditional ‘Seven Last Words’.

The voices used in the piece are from different age groups. Hearing these voices asks us various questions. Is the young faltering voice merely cute? Is the older, measure voice more authoritative? Do these voices reflect the way the bible is read or heard?

(The sound is not from in situ but from the original mixdown.)

The more you see, the less you hear

Yesterday the family went on the London Eye. Everything about it is geared towards the visual. The name, the glass pod and the vending of views. I tried to listen to the experience.

The moment that the glass pod shut its doors, it seemed to shut out London. You couldn’t hear the incessant traffic or the raucous touristy crowd. Just the twenty of us murmuring… ‘Oh that’s the…’, ‘There’s …..!’. The silence of that the pod brought quietened us as well. Even my boisterous 4 year old was lulled by the odd experience.

I wondered what it would be like to hear all that I could see. Could we hear anything more than the wind? I suppose to truly find out we would need a balloon tour over London to hear it. Then probably we would see it differently.

The London Eye also showed the sheer amount of investment that’s gone into making sights better. Everything has to look good. And we must be able to see it from all angles. We have rather sophisticated set of systems that ask us to look, charging us a bit of money on the way. Tourism as a whole seems to be based around sight. After all sightseeing is the word we use. And does our ubiquitous lust of sight reduce our ability to take in sound?

So, an interesting question : what would a tourism based around sound be like?

23

Over 2013 I recorded a familiar text in familiar situations. However the text is not normally spoken in these situations. So this is an experiment with 23 unedited recordings to see what happens when the text is said in these situations and how we hear these texts in these unusual pairings.

The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue – A phenomenology of music

The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue – A phenomenology of music. – Bruce ellis Benson Cambridge University Press 2003

I first read Bruce Ellis Benson in the book Resonant Witness: Conversations between Music and Theology. He put forward the notion of using the metaphor of improvisation for hermeneutics of the Bible. He used jazz as an accessible model where the musicians remain faithful to their tradition but are constantly improvising and bringing new things to the tradition. Ever since reading that I had wanted to read more of what Benson had to say and finally I purchased The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue.

Benson is strongly inspired by Gadamer and in the preface he sets up a core frame of reference for the book. Gadamer considers musical performance to have same interpretational structure as text or art. By setting this up, he goes on to elucidate his main thesis of the book: that the act of music is essentially improvisational.

In chapter 1 he looks at the ideas of Composition and Performance and what a musical work actually is. He is primarily setting the scene within the Western Classical tradition which is all the more interesting as the classical tradition by stereotype is the least overtly improvisational tradition of music. He considers the distinct acts of composition and of performance as a type of improvisation. One of the ways he does this is by questioning the idea of creation ex nihilo in music.

Composers never create ex nihilo, but instead “improvise”: sometimes on tunes that already exist, but more frequently and importantly on the tradition in which they work. 25

And he goes on to consider that performers “even when performing music that is strictly notated – do not merely “perform” but also “improvise” upon that which they perform.”

There is then a fairly extensive detailing of 11 kinds of improvisation that he sees from the basic, like a change in tempo or volume, to the more sophisticated where everything seems different from the original.

In chapter 2 He looks in more detail at composition itself. He deconstructs the idea of the romantic genius and considers composition more as an act of discovery. The point is illustrated through Godel theorem’s in that Godel’s creative thought was crucial in the way he discovered. A composer similarly ‘discovers’ the best possible arrangement of sounds for his piece.

Again against the grain of the romantic genius, the composer is not free to do what he wants. He has to work within a tradition and normally he is improvising within that tradition.

“Composing” is not simply a matter of bring elements together; rather, they are brought together in a way that transforms those elements. 45

Also for some composers the piece is never finished. Beethoven continued to add finishing touches to pieces and Elliot Carter considered every performance of one his pieces as diferent, but that “which everone I’m hearing always seems the best.” 71

Chapter 3 is intriguingly named as “Performing – The Improvisation of Preservation”. This is an indepth discussion of the score and score’s relation is to the musical work. Is the score to be done purely according to the composer’s intention or are there other factors that impinge? Benson considers that both are required. There might be a text which the author declares as the ‘true’ one. But in every performance or reading of this text we align it with the present.

Chapter 4 looks at music as a constantly evolving activity. And not music as a whole but even the life of individual pieces. The piece ‘April in Paris’ is described in its evolution through the various performers who brought it to popularity and each interpretation has had an effect in how we listen and perform it today.

Invoking Heidegger, a piece of music, “is a world within a world, a musical space that is created within and out of a larger musical practice.” (148) And each new performance is making the piece what it is. It is existing through the constantly evolving performances.

“Chapter 5 : Being Musical with the Other” brought together all that had gone before into an understanding of how we are to be with each other in music activity. Is the composer the privileged one? Or is it he perfomer? He draws first on Emmanuel Levinas concern of the other – “to approach the Other is to put into question my freedom, my spontaneity.” Gadamer’s metaphor of fusion of horizons is brought into get a clearer idea of exactly how we can do music without overtly overriding the other. Responsibility seems to be a key ethic of how to be within a musical context. He presents the responsibility of the participants of the musical activity i.e. the composer, the performer(s) and the listeners towards each other. But he also considers that we have a responsibility to the ‘gift’ (referring to Derrida and Marion). “That responsibility can be parsed out, variously as responsibility to the giver of the gift, to the gift itself, and to the fact that the gift has not merely been given to me.”

He ends with a Gadamer idea but directly linking with Stravinsky,

[The] game is defined neither by the composer nor by the performer nor by the listener. It is a game that has a long history, a performance practice that has been preserved and handed down over the years.

Overall I found the book readable and quite thought provoking. I appreciated the bringing together of the various philosophical currents from Kant to Heidegger to Derrida. I found it particularly illuminating the deconstruction of the idea of genius through very specific examples of composers composing from each other and from themselves and two forged letters that furthered the notion of the romantic genius.

Furthering the idea the musical work as an organic entity was particularly invigorating.

This was written in 2003 before the ipod revolution. Benson does make brief allusions to listening to music in private, considering them to still be an experience of connection to an ‘other’. It would be interesting whether that would made a difference to the contour of the book.

One puzzle that I genuinely have is that, he hasn’t written about the listener. He mentions the listener often but never fully discusses how the listener is improvising. This is probably something that comes along later because in his essay in Resonant Witness his focus is very much on the reader. The truth also is that the discourses around listening are still quite nascent 11 years on.

A stimulating read.

Light and sound

Went for a performance of the new queen Elizabeth hall organ. It was billed as multi media event with visuals accompanying the organ.

I don’t think it worked. We were treated to astonishing music by gubaidulina and Bach orgiastic, grand, swirling and what visuals do we get? Lots of pretty shots of nature .

They were beautifully shot and in and of themselves they were artistic but they didn’t seem to dialogue with the sound at all. At points I closed my eyes for a while to see whether the visuals were having any effect but I could discern none.

Maybe we’re too used to sound accompanying ritual and visuals. When we ask of something to accompany sound it is actually incredibly complex and it falls flat.

Creche

Sitting in a quiet church building has a particular feeling and emotion which is hard to describe. It’s easier to describe what we feel when the screech of a child breaks through the shelter of peace and silence.

However the question arises what is that church building for? Who is it for? Which people get priority in such a space? Each church culture is different, but overall the space is a priority space for adults. Children are sent ‘away’ to sunday school and sunday time or they’re asked to be silent and not disturb the adults who are seemingly doing ‘important’ things.

In order to better understand how all this works I’ve started recording these various spaces. I recorded the creche a few sundays ago and was confronted with a range of ethical dilemmas which we’ve been discussing through our course.

I hadn’t asked anyone’s permission. Silly mistake but I shan’t repeat that one. The other question was the kinds of conversation that was going on in the creche between the carers. And there was some deep and personal stuff shared. So was it in anyway possible to give a feel of what the space was like without giving away too much detail and relational exchanges which were only for a particular context?

So I took the two hour recording and broke it into 16 equal parts and mixed the whole thing together. I think I’ve managed to get the sound of a creche without breaking confidences or dehumanising people. See what you think

Family leaving : Sound documents from a family trip

Right. Time to get this blog back on the road. Just after Easter our family did a strange thing. We went on holiday not to a relative! So I’m going to post some sound documents from that holiday. This is us leaving. With children the process of leaving seems always filled with tangents and protests and random songs! However these are the sounds of life. The worldviews of children and parents are forever different and leaving in one piece (forget peace!) is the one grim aim of those few hours.

Scratch 54 Fastfood

I love fastfood. I don’t agree with it. It doesn’t often agree with me. But there are ocassions when fastfood cravings hit. So here it is. Your average fastfood place, busy beyond belief, churning out what essentially is rubbish, for not that cheap but hey, it’s what you know.

Scratch 53 Oxford Street

Oxford Street in London was pedestrianised today. I didn’t mean to walk through but the buses were all rerouted. You can hear music blaring out of certain shops as I walk past. You’ll probably here the squelch of people’s shoes in the wet weather. In the midst of all the rush there were the council workers cleaning up the street. The best bit was near the end where a choir was singing. Somehow in the midst of all that shopping madness it seemed to be the only reality worth engaging with.

Scratch 52 The Voice of the Other

Going on a bus I heard a man loudly talking in a language I didn’t know. Sometimes it has irritated me. Sometimes it has fascinated me. Sometimes I just enjoy the sounds. I too, have talked in a language that is not the local language in various contexts. For some, this is threatening, as evidenced by rascist rants on various public transport systems. After all another language is alien. We fear it is taking over our space. We feel intruded upon. But that sound which is strange to us, is someone’s world. It is their existence.

Scratch 51

The wind is something that can’t be seen. In fact to call it a thing is a misnomer. It is a process where gas moves. But in that movement so much happens. Creatures and objects get carried in it. Trees and wires shudder. This unseen force is visual known by its effect. Yet what about that sound. The sound of wind is the representation of the medium of sound itself. The messenger becomes the message.

Scratch 50! Waiting in the Rain

Wow! I’ve reached 50 scratches!

Today’s scratch is again rain. The interesting thing about the sound of rain is that we aren’t hearing rain itself. We are hearing the drops falling on various surfaces and it’s that point of contact that we call the sound of rain. So today’s sound is just recorded from under the umbrella while I was waiting to pick up K1 from school. So the sound you hear is not just of rain falling and therefore making everything wet. It is also of the umbrella that is keeping me relatively dry. 🙂

Scratch 48 Early Etchings

Bela Bartók did an amazing thing by recording the folk music of the time on the wax cylinder phonographs. He allowed a very particular kind of history to be documented. We have so much of history in text. Quite a bit in visuals and sculpture. Yet sound was always recorded through other media, (notation, words, pictures) until the 19th century. Bartok’s explorations allowed a part of history to be documented in a unique way. I downloaded a few of his recordings from here. It is interesting how the technology itself ‘places’ our hearing of this in a time that’s past.

 

Scratch 47 Two Giants

Two writers who’ve given me much enjoyment and comfort. The beautifully articulate C.S Lewis and the whimsical contrary G.K. Chesterton. Again you need headphones for this. These are recordings from the 1930s which I got from here and here. It is odd to hear the voice of one, you’ve only read. Some of it feels familiar and yet the fleshliness of the voice provokes a deeper mystery of reality of who that person is.

Scratch 45 Strange walk in the park

This is an audio manipulation of a walk in the park. I took 4 copies of the sound and offset them by 20 ms and then stretched it so that they ended at the same point. To my perspective the initial part feels slowed down just because of the echoes. though in reality a few of the sounds are actually slightly faster. Echoes do give a sense of slowness because the sound has multiplied and offset and therefore it feels perceptually much longer than it actually is. Towards the end you get other kinds of flange and reverb effects as the sounds reach the point of being synced.

Scratch 44 Tree pruning

At the bus stop we were overpowered by this sound. A tree was being pruned and the branches were being shredded. I’ve taken two parts of the recording and played them back simultaneously but split across the headphone.

The consistency of the sound is scary. The crushing of the wood and constant hunger of the machine make it for me a metaphor for death.