Responding to Kermani's "Wak Auf."

Responding to Kermani's "Wak Auf."

2001-09-15
Riposte to: 

In her Sonic Spectrum survey, Elise Kermani invited readers to locate sounds on the spectrum from noise to sound to music. Here, Skip LaPlante responds with an autobiography in music, sound, and noise.

Let’s jump around a little. The most incredible concert I ever heard was in the James River Face Wilderness in Virginia one night a mid-August far too many years ago. I was on the Appalachian Trail, doing the backpacker thing as usual. I was at a shelter, had finished dinner and was hanging around as evening set in. There had been hints of katydid activity the few evenings previous, but probably I had been camped too high to be in the critters’ home territory. This night there were not less than 5000 katydids within earshot, all over the place in every direction (except underground). The katydid calling drowned out all other sound, or maybe there was so much of it and it was so rich that I didn’t notice anything else. There were so many katydids (not cicadas, which is what I thought at the time, but a naturalist set me straight later) that I began to impose patterns on what I hearing in the same way that people impose patterns on the stars - call them constellations. I heard it as alternating phalanxes of sound, alternating katydid calls. All the katydids on my right side called, then all on the left. This seemed to go on for a while, maybe 15-20 seconds before my imposed organization was overwhelmed by what was actually there. For a short time I heard total katydid chaos, then the alternation would start again, with some new spatial polarity - perhaps high in the trees alternating with near to the ground. This went on for hours. It was absolutely amazing. Frogs on a lake, loons on a lake, dragonflies are pretty special.

I think I got to thinking about sound in a Cagian sort of way in college. I was aware of different kinds of sounds. I remember having the notion that it would be interesting to transform different kinds of sounds by taking the front end of a recorded sound - like a siren. Keep all the swell and rise in pitch of the sound, and just as the decay/descent starts, insert a different sound with a different but similarly slowly downhill sort of decay trajectory. I never had the technology to make anything of the idea. Later I got so annoyed with not really having real access to the fancy electronics that Princeton seemed to have around that I just began to go in the other direction entirely - as near to totally acoustic as possible. I remember we had a copy of Cage’s book in the bathroom, which was a great place to read it. I don’t know exactly how it influenced me. I still like his ideas and can’t stand his music. But that gets into why I listen to stuff.

I used to listen devotedly to radio. Then I moved from Boston’s rich radio world, at the time full of alternative, experimental rock when it really seemed to be that, to the desert of central New Jersey. If New York actually had real radio the signal didn’t reach us. Instead I was in a world of top 40 garbage. I turned off the radio and never have gone back. Instead I made it my business to listen to everything mentioned in Milton Babbitt’s introduction to 20th century music - all the required listening and everything else I could find by anybody he mentioned in the course. I became a listening encyclopedia. For the next couple of years I lived that musical life - if the professors seemed to think it was significant, I sampled it. Then I graduated and moved into a different world, a short stay at a farm, then a whole year at Spacefarm, an old farm being warehoused until the developers could get around to growing a crop of fancy houses. Crazed semi-hippie crash pad, but 100 acres of land of ours contiguous with a 500 acre farm, then lots of suburban junk on the fringes. I took long walks, I was Thoreau all over again, except that I listened more than he did I think. I heard central New Jersey. I heard nature like I had never really heard it in suburban Boston. The farmhouse was a crazy muddle - mostly recorded stuff. For a while one person decided that Jimmy Buffett and Pink Floyd were ok and all else was talibanned. I was building instruments like a madman out of everything nearby, so the house was often full of all that.

Then I moved to NYC, land of noise. For a year I lived in NJ and worked in NYC. I loved retreating to the quiet. But I moved to NYC to be in a society I felt more at home in and accepted the noise.

What is there to say about it - MFHI (ed. Music for HomeMade Instruments - Skip’s ensemble) once had an evening where we wrote a few minutes worth of musical score and passed our pages along to the next composer, who added stuff and passed it along. I remember writing as bar lines in a particularly indeterminate part: next passing ambulance. They actually came down the Bowery frequently enough to use them as sequencing events. All 110 decibels worth. The antidote is backpacking - where I can just listen to whatever happens to be there - hopefully not too many machines. I stopped listening to everything. It was just too damn loud and it seemed criminal to take responsibility for adding another decibel of any sort. Except to play music - to physically dance with the instrument. The no electronics thing became more deeply ingrained. Only in the past year or two have I rediscovered the urge to listen to anything. But when one is not listening to anything, anything one does hear is noise. Led Zeppelin is noise, but so is Mozart (who I hate) or even Dvorak (who is one of my favorites). If you choose to listen to it, it isn’t noise, unless you make somebody else listen to it. I find I’m less bothered by faceless rumbles like the computer fan - mostly white noise and not so loud - and terribly bothered by programmed noise - rock and roll I don’t want to hear, pretty much all tv which my family is addicted to, but I find all I can do is retreat to the computer room and try to ignore it. I love it when it rains. The rumble of the traffic is completely transformed - it is louder but the sound is different enough to be pleasant. I used to try and tell this to my son as we walked to or from school, but he could never hear me over the roar of the traffic.

So where is all this going? “Wak Auf” was a different sort of experience for me. I didn’t really relate to the piece - I never understood the motivation. I had to retreat to simply executing my instructions as best I could and letting you be the judge of whether I was providing stuff that helped meet your overall objectives. I was mostly unable to figure out and separate the various electronic sources - they were all tagged as electronic to me. I admit the Bach mutilations were different than the other stuff, but the other stuff seemed to be qualitatively the same as the result of some of the mutilations, or maybe I just never knew what was going on. Again it didn’t matter, or actually it did but there wasn’t time to make a huge issue of it - I’d much rather go with the program as best I can. I’ve played in composer’s cooperative ventures enough to know that often you just have to suppress any urge to shape the material in a way that makes sense to you since it is somebody else’s stuff. If you’ve worked together with somebody for a while, you can inject more of yourself in a collaboration, but in a new situation, especially where speed of uptake is a serious issue, just do what you can and make the best of it. I had a hard time trying to step outside my role as a performer and hear the whole piece as it evolved. I’ve only listened to the CD of the concert once.

But “Wak Auf” goes into a deeper area - what about when the message is mix of signals? I think that I never quite got what the foreground was - never got that experience of being led - that the next event, when it happened, seemed like it should have happened. That happens when it isn’t clear what details are the important ones. It seemed that the levels of noise, the amount of distorted signal might have been the lagu (in Japanese music lagu translates as the inner melody - a gestalt melody never sounded by one instrument in one place). This would be an exquisitely difficult lagu to project - one would have to know the original signal to be able to gauge how much distortion was happening to it. With the Bach you can do that because the language of the music is sufficiently well known so that anything in the language can be tagged in the same way we might tag a conversation at another table occuring in Japanese. We know the sound of the language even if the words have no meaning for us. This isn’t going to work with other types of electric signal unless the first part of the event sets a context for whatever the signal is to be. We can be conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell. But you can’t expect an audience off the street to hear a bell and begin salivating.

Anyway - I’ve been at this an hour and I could go on for years. A lot of this is stuff I’ve been thinking about for years one way or another. It’s interesting we never got to this place in the brief time we worked together, but brief time is perfect for not seeing all the details.