In music, we should be satisfied with opening our ears. Everything can musically enter an ear open to all sounds! Not only the music we consider beautiful but also the music that is life itself…the more we discover that the noises of the outside world are musical, the more music there is… in the case of sound, whether the sound be loud or soft, flat or sharp, or whatever you like, that doesn’t constitute a sufficient motive for not opening ourselves up to what it is, as for any sound which may possibly occur.
John Cage, For the Birds, 1981
In 2011, Felicity Ford documented the Audiograft festival, organised by the Sonic Art Research Unit at Oxford Brookes. The recordings that she made of individual events, performances and sound installations are gradually being archived on the University website, and the archive will expand further as new documentation – from this year’s festival – is added. Documentation ranges from interviews with artists about their work; recordings of concerts and sound installations; and recordings of the responses of the public as they viewed and heard the work.
However, there are no picture frames to surround pieces of soundart, and we began this discussion with a quote from John Cage because since his proposition that we should “open our ears” to “any sound which may possibly occur,” the boundaries which separate special “Art Sounds” or “Music” from the din of the world become ever harder to delineate. In the creation of all sonic documentation, or sound recordings of any event, the “music that is life itself” unavoidably leaks in. When documenting events like Audiograft, the resulting recordings contain not only the words of artists or the sounds of their work or the reactions of the public, but also the spaces in which such words or works are heard; the timbre of halls and rooms; and the background chatter of “Non-Art” sounds.
Therefore, the documentation of Audiograft 2011 contains the creaks of the wood in the Holywell Concert Hall as much as it contains the sounds of Orange Event Number 24 by Bengt af Klintberg; the sound of students crashing through the foyer and chit-chat at the Audiograft 2011 launch between the wine and the nibbles can be heard as clearly as the George Brecht piece which was performed there; and recordings of performances and installations created at Audiograft 2011 also document passing sirens, the coughs of strangers and the beat of high-heels clacking in the vicinity. To the post-Cagean field-recordist – whose ears are open to “all sounds” – there is no problem with this type of documentation, which situates Music or soundart in the rich, sonic contexts of the world, and which records that when the “Art Sounds” were happening, people were talking and laughing, a woman passed by in noisy shoes, and an ambulance wailed in the street.
The process of documenting a festival like Audiograft presents a rich, imaginative situation to the field-recordist whose interests lie in documenting everyday life, and to whom everyday, incidental sounds are as interesting and as important as the “special” sounds purveyed at cultural events. Such a field-recordist, interested in the idea of recording everyday life in sound, will have trouble accepting the distinctions between special sounds and ordinary non-art sounds, and will tend towards subverting those borders in some way, or at least testing their flexibility. The Berlin Sound Diary by Paul Whitty is one such instance of this; the ordinary sounds of eating and travelling are positioned beside the sounds of the performance Whitty and Cornford gave in a gallery at Berlin, and are conversely then in turn made special through the processes of archiving and editing, and through their presentation here.
Perhaps it is not important to resolve the distinctions between “the music we consider beautiful” and “the music that is life itself”; nor to attempt to delineate borders between those two realms. Perhaps instead the post-Cagean situation – in which there is no hierarchy of sounds – can be seen as a rich seam of complexity to be mined and explored indefinitely. For the purposes of documenting events such as Festivals, one such project might involve recording processes and procedures which point the microphone around, beside, before, after and beyond the duration of the Designated Cultural Experience as well as at it, so that the resulting documentation – like the experience of attending such events – can be read in relation to the surrounding sounds of the world. Conundrums can be created such as “is this a recording of a concert, or the recording of a man coughing while a concert is happening?” or “is this recording the sound of a man talking about the wind, or the sound of the wind with a man talking in it?”
To explore the complex nature of documenting special “Art Sounds” in more depth, Ford will be co-running a documentation workshop at Audiograft 2012 along with Valeria Merlini. You can apply to take up one of the limited places on this workshop by emailing felixbadanimal[at]hotmail[dot]com. Expect to ask yourself:
What will I record?
How will I document an event?
How will I tell the story of a Designated Art Experience?
Will I distinguish between special and unspecial sounds? How?
When will I switch the record button on and off?
What is worth recording?
How will the act of documentation frame how an end user experiences the original work?
In the meantime, throughout February 2012, a selection of recordings from Audiograft 2011 will be shared here as a Sound Diary, like a series of sonic snapshots of moments from the festival; though without framing, and without borders, and filled with the overspilling sounds of the surrounding world.
The first Sound Diary entry from Audiograft 2011 is: The sound of the corridors in the Richard Hamilton Building, where a performance of George Brecht’s piece, Polishing, was taking place. The performers – Sarah Hughes and Patrick Farmer – were polishing a violin and a double-bass, respectively. Chatter, doors, folks passing by, and the exhibition launch event were also happening and sounding in the same space.