The Language of Music and Sound

The Language of Music and Sound

Olivia Block

Against the notion that music is the most abstract of art forms, Olivia Block thinks of music as a language with its own vocabulary of sounds, patterns, rhythms, notes. On the day of a performance in Kyoto, Japan, these reflections alter Block’s sense of her own language, English, deconstructed by Japanese advertisements, tee-shirts, “American” candy-bar wrappers, and text-cell phones.

Editor’s Note: Olivia Block and Seth Nehil are two sound artists who create music by integrating sounds from electronic sources, traditional instruments, field recordings and found objects such as old tape recordings or leaves, rocks, and pieces of glass. Collaborating together and at times with others, they are part of a world-wide community of composer/performers who are developing a new lingua franca of sound that puts the natural and the artificial into play with one another: composer/performers that blur genres of sound and music, as well as sound and silence. They extend the tradition of John Cage through their use of noise – a kind of Zuam poetry where sounds instead of words conjure associations and create patterns of meaningfulness, if not meaning. Unlike much early experimental music, though, their soundscapes also draw listeners in through an emotional pull usually associated with more traditional music.

Though a piece may be composed over many months, when performed, it becomes a site of tension and improvisation: pre-prepared recordings are played through several lo-fi tape decks, placed in every corner of the performance space, creating an audible score which activates the dimensions of the room itself. Block and Nehil accompany the tape installation on stage, manipulating amplified objects and mixing CDs. They have staged performances in Rome, New York, Chicago, and many other cities, often playing rocks, dried grass, and other found materials indigenous to the location.

Here is one of them:

Club Metro, May 1, 2000

Olivia Block

Seth Nehil and I arrive in the early evening at the Club Metro in Kyoto for the 4th performance on our Japan tour. Our hosts, a local abstract turntable group called “Busratch” have generously met us early for sound check. We have played three other gigs with them earlier in the week in other cities: Tokyo, Osaka, and Maibashi, hitching on to their regional tour. Tonight, Seth and I will perform our usual duo collaboration after Busratch performs.

Makio, the one who seems to be the designated Busratch translator, is now leading us through the club, showing us where to set up our gear, where the sound man is, etc. We walk through the small dark space past the front entrance to the main room, a small, dimly lit dance club: DJ station on one end, small dance floor in the center, and small stage on the far end next to the narrow bar to the left. Two of the other Busratch guys, Masamitsu and Takahiro, are casually spinning records before the bulk of the crowd arrives. There is only one straggler meandering around the dance floor, a young Japanese man wearing a flamboyant seventies-style psychedelic button-down shirt, flared pants, a scarf tied around his head in doo-rag fashion with a long fabric tail streaming down the back of his neck, and oversized sunglasses with circular frames. He is sipping a drink through a straw and casually dancing, swaying, and shuffling around the floor. “A Rainbow in Curved Air,” [# 2] the electronic piece by Terry Riley, is playing now, its layers of pulsing tones cascading over one another in the air around the dance floor, creating rich harmonies and shimmering beads of sound. I am impressed that the lonely dancer is not intimidated by the lack of conventional rhythm in the music. There are two small video monitors standing on either side of the dance floor, flashing little blips of white static against their black screens. The images seem fitting.

We stop at the bar, put our bags aside, and Makio attempts to ask us a few utilitarian questions. Seth and I feel guilty as we watch him search for the appropriate English words to form the desired sentence, his expression fixed in a grimace of frustrated concentration, mouth struggling to release the syllables, his hand rubbing his aching forehead. Excruciating amounts of time drag between each word he so earnestly manages to conjure, and we still can’t figure out what he is trying to ask us. He finally manages to scribble some words down on paper, asking us about our equipment, show times, and other details.

Typically American, Seth and I don’t speak any Japanese, so we must rely on the little English that the Busratch members tirelessly manage to eke out as our only communication. One day, I assure myself, I will learn Japanese to repay their kindness should they travel to the States to play.

Despite our language barrier, I feel an unspoken cross-cultural alliance with this group. Our collective desire to reach beyond the parameters of music, the language we actually do have in common, has brought us together to this rare occasion in Kyoto, and although none of our shows have garnered an audience of over 50 people so far, this little tour feels oddly important, as if we are members of a larger cultural movement in the process of forming.

I always find it strange when people say that music is the most “abstract” of art forms, not because this isn’t true, necessarily, but because I think people say this meaning that music has the least in common with written/spoken language. I think of music as another language, which has developed a relatively fixed vocabulary of sounds, patterns, rhythms, notes. As with words, each unit, or pattern of units, in this “vocabulary” carries an association, rarely considered by the listener, perhaps because the associations themselves may be of the more ephemeral, emotional or spiritual nature, yet still somewhat concrete in the way that the associations are always the same.

Recently, films have done much to advance associations of certain harmonies, instruments, musical styles, and sounds with certain emotions and images. There is a story regarding soundtrack composition which is repeated often in film school. It stars the score to Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which was composed by the Hungarian modern classical composer, Ligeti. It is well documented that Kubrick did not obtain permission to use Ligeti’s opera pieces in this film, and that Ligeti was angry about the use of his works. Ligeti’s work was also included in Kubrick’s horror/thriller film “The Shining.” These compositions contained very high “screeching” violin sections that, compounded by an earlier use of strings in Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” have since become associated with suspense and fear, and are now copied often in other suspense/horror movies. What perhaps was initially an earnest attempt at an avant-garde technique for the string section in a modern classical composition has since become a cinematic cliché. No one can say what that sound would have meant if it had not been co-opted in such a focused way by the cinema. Perhaps one could appreciate the frenetic energy of the bowing as a visceral experience, rather than an immediate, programmed, emotional response. At this point, music has become a tool used to manipulate the human emotional and cognitive experience in an unconscious way. Such is an example of how the language of music changes as certain associations are made with certain sounds over time.

When all of this is considered, I suppose it’s inevitable that Seth and I would find allies in that other country that’s saturated in pop culture, Japan. The fact that both cultures are steeped in advertisements where music and sound in general are often used as marketing tools seems to be fueling a desire to make more experimental kinds of music in which the sounds themselves and their placements are so different that they cannot be used to manipulate the audience. Inevitably, questions arise: how can we create “sound-art” which escapes immediate unconscious association with an image, a thought, or most of all, a particular emotion which has already been formed? Is it possible to use new sounds, composed artfully, but differently enough that any given audience member can consciously make his or her own individual meaning out of what is heard? What will the listener do with this freedom?

The performance time is drawing nearer, so Seth and I venture out for our nightly ritual to collect “instruments” for the show. Club Metro is situated on a large avenue which lies on the banks of a river, a broad pedestrian thoroughfare in the city. The low skyline consists of silhouettes of ancient ornate temples and blocky modern buildings, a juxtaposition which is striking. The April evening air is warm and thick with moisture from the river below. Seth and I stroll along the sidewalk passing young people riding bicycles, ringing their awkward handlebar bells as they approach us. Teens walk slowly by, like zombies, gazing at text-cell phones. One is wearing a tee-shirt with a cartoon of some animals in a speeding convertible and says “The Driving Life: It’s all a fun!” We pass a porn video shop, then a little bar with a sign that reads “Groovy: An Airily American Restaurant.” We laugh. As we approach the banks of the river [#3], the sound of the water and the din of crickets grow louder than the rustlings on the sidewalk above. A large black crow “caws,” a sound I haven’t yet gotten used to here, because the crows in Japan have a voice which is nearly an octave lower than those found in the U.S., so they always sound eerily skewed, like a warped recording.

Seth and I branch apart, searching for any precious natural artifacts we can use. I find some clumps of dirty dry leaves on the edge of the river, and I handle them carefully, placing them in a little plastic bag. They are rare and priceless treasures here. Walking farther along, I spot pieces of an angular tree branch scattered in a pile of newspaper on the ground, and a beautiful piece of jagged bark. Seth returns to meet me, smiling proudly, showing me his spoils: some pebbles, a single large leaf, of a different variety than my own, and some dried grass. It’s a good night. We have decided to limit our pallet of sound sources to these kinds of organic objects, not necessarily in a consciously conceptual way, but the use of them, now fragile and rare in the context of a smoky club or gallery, amplified and distorted, compels us.

Seth and I are old friends, we used to collaborate with another friend, John Grzinich, in a band called “Alial Straa” when we all lived in Austin in the mid 90s. We have titled this particular live series “Field Studies,” a reference to the dense masses of sound we create during our shows by manipulating amplified “organic” objects on stage: dried grass, leaves, pebbles, beans in cans. We mix these live elements with CDs containing pre-prepared material from similar sources, but highly manipulated, chopped, distorted, slowed-down, distilled down to pure texture; ephemeral fragments of their previous forms.

We climb up the slope to the sidewalk, now farther away from the club, and start walking back. We pass stores and clubs. We pass a “Lawsons,” Japan’s chain convenience store, and I run in for a snack before we play. Candy is arranged in rows in the florescent aisles exactly as in an American convenience store like Seven-Eleven. The shelves house chocolate bars with names in Roman letters designed to sound like American words, but with no meanings. I grab my usual “Crunky” bar, a title I find descriptive despite its nonsensical nature, and freshly hilarious when I read it each time I get one. I pay at the register where the cashier smiles widely and chirps an enthusiastic greeting. I find Seth outside looking at a promotional “Lawson’s” tri-fold pamphlet which he took from the counter. The cover has a photograph of “Mr. Lawson,” the spokesperson for the store, a large and portly African-American man dressed in a tuxedo, looking directly into the camera with a regal expression, chin slightly raised. Next to him stands a newly introduced character, “Mrs. Lawson,” who looks identical to Mr. Lawson, but wears a blonde wig, in a chin-length flip style, large pearls and a conservative pink tweed blazer. Upon closer inspection, Seth and I realize that this is the same person in two different photos, one in drag, subtly superimposed onto the other photograph in order to look like a married couple. The inside of the flyer reads, “A PARTY INVITATION” followed by some Japanese characters. Then some pictures of mysterious Japanese snack foods, “DESSERT,” more Japanese characters, a photo of some celebratory objects: streamers, balloons, arranged starkly on the pink paper. “LOVE AND IDEA” is the Lawson’s slogan.

I have developed great respect for the Japanese culture’s appropriation of English words, specifically American style words. I recognize them, casually strewn about signs, tee-shirts, toys, with little regard for spelling, meaning, or context and I am endlessly amused and a little awestruck as I notice the absurdity of my own language in these contexts. This spirit seems to fuel my convictions here, as if the culture itself is giving me permission to distort, deconstruct, and playfully ignore the rules of the genre. Why not? The language of music and sound can be just as changeable and fluid as these words.

We return to the club as Busratch is well into their set. There is an infectious energy in their methods of destroying records, taping them back together, and spinning them. At one point a cymbal is placed on the turntable, the needle picking up its metallic qualities, and the texture of the surface. I watch Katasura, the female member of Busratch, for a while. She handles the turntable like an expert craftsperson, tending to details and objects, assembling things, moving her fingers around the vinyl discs, never looking up from under her ski cap. The music they make is like a narrative, sonic glimpses of history combined and broken apart. Slowed down electronic music, scratched environmental sounds, two broken classical records fused together, cutting rapidly from one string section to the other…. [#4]

When they are finished there is a glorious mess at the DJ station, four turntables, piles of records out of their sleeves scattered all over the place, mixers, masking tape, percussive objects, mysterious little mechanical things lying around.

We have set up our gear on the main stage now, and we are ready to play. The long table, now dramatically lit with small colored spotlights, holds the grass, leaves, and branches, which are arranged neatly in little piles near a small table microphone. Seth has put the pebbles in a small cardboard box. A small “contact mic,” a certain kind of flat disc-shaped microphone which only amplifies vibrations from the surface it touches, has been fastened to the underside of the box. Seth’s large leaf has been placed in a tall bottle, and looks elegant in the shadowy stage light. Our mixing board is hooked up to several CD players, which will play through the house PA speakers. There is a small but very attentive audience sitting quietly on the dance floor, waiting for us to get comfortable in our chairs and begin.

I bring up the faders on the board, playing the first track on one of my CDs, a crackling, hissing sound which comes through the left speaker and fades away, disappearing from the space. We are tentative at first, understanding the gravity of broken silence. Seth carefully tilts the cardboard box and the pebbles roll to one side, which results initially in a delicate rumbling, but as he gradually raises the volume, the rumbling becomes a thunderous tumbling bass-sound, moving from left to right speaker. I hold back for a moment, letting the textures fill the air [#5], and I mix in some grainy sounds, feeling that these are necessary for the space, as a brush stroke of a certain color might be necessary on a canvas in progress. Seth continues to play the box deftly, picking up individual pebbles and dropping them back into the box as he rotates it, resulting in a percussive popping sound layered over the tracks I play on the CDs. He is letting some CDs run now, also, containing a consistent liquid texture and little electronic blips. I am absorbed in the filling and emptying of sound, the composition unfolding, listening to Seth’s sculpted fragments, and inserting my own washes of aural color. I take the dried grass, bring up my mic faders, and begin to shuffle the dry blades in my fingers, listening to the detached amplified version in the room, the brittle pieces creating loud friction which makes me feel powerful, as if I have given something very small a booming voice. I concentrate on listening for a moment, hearing a low shuffling of noises, and I decide the ambiance calls for some sharpness. I take a branch section, and scratch the end of it on to one of the large dry leaves, carefully tracing the crippled edges right up against the microphone, as if writing some ancient script, listening to the branch tip catching on the complex topography, echoing through the space over the hum of the CD track playing. I am completely focused in the moment. Seth and I are energized, and the club’s atmosphere feels tense with excitement now as we move the piece slowly from spacious to dense, almost abrasive, as layers of sound begin to drown out the smaller nuances of each individual gesture we make with the instruments. The recorded material has transformed into harsh distorted cuts [#6], darting loudly in and out of the mix, creating a jagged soundscape in the room. A gorgeous chaos is evolving, bringing more intensity to my playing. We don’t look at each other, our focus instead on our hands working the mixer and objects; I feel the hot red light on the top of my head. The end of the branch piece I am using now against some sandpaper is worn down to a wooden nub. Seth responds to the tension of the piece by pouring the pebbles out violently onto the floor of the stage, taking the bottle and scraping them loudly, un-amplified, but still very audible. Volume at its peak now, the floor of the stage around our table is a mess of scraps of grass, pebbles, and glass. I am calm in the intensity, forcefully breaking the tree branches on the mic, crumpling them up in my fists, twisting and folding them, hearing them crack and break apart until they are pummeled into a little pile of fragments….

The crowd is enthusiastic after the show, and they buy our CDs from the display table. One adventurous audience member comes on stage to examine the pieces of our former instruments, picking a piece of dried leaf up, all of the life now gone from it, and placing it close to her ears, moving the piece around and listening closely, as if attempting to revive it. She smiles over at me and I smile and nod back, encouraging her to continue her investigation.

Sometimes I finish one of these types of performances and wonder how it could possibly be received favorably. In my cynical moods I assume that people do not want to venture outside of the emotional haven which most musical forms promise. Who would ever be interested in something which drastically lacks conventional forms? It is difficult when there is no context to grasp, for me as well as anyone else; sometimes I have no reaction at all to what is presented in such cases. The emptiness is disturbing, nothing to think or feel. I am always astonished and encouraged when I recognize that there are a few, a solid following, who seek out this work eagerly. Ultimately there is an understanding about meaning that I share with them, that a new form presents an occasion where meaning can be consciously created, after the initial awareness of the lack of something else, the missing reaction or association, which would usually follow some more familiar form. This work exists in that fleeting gap between language and meaninglessness, when beauty can actually still be discovered. It is the moment before the word is uttered clearly. I know, however, that this space, which contains these new sounds and patterns Seth and I have created, will soon disappear, absorbed into a fixed place in the vocabulary, like a little magic door in a fable which suddenly vanishes, forcing us to move on.

Note: CDs by Olivia Block and Seth Nehil can be found at CDs by Busratch can be obtained by contacting Paradisc records.