The Party Lab:
A Project History
A Listening Installation, And
‘Non-Ideal’ Listening Culture
Introduction: the experimental umbrella
For many years, I lived inside a music venue. My bedroom door was where tickets were taken. I cooked on a stove where the drums were set up. Everyday, around the same time, the staff would open the doors and the musicians would load in and their equipment was piled into the living room, and the couches were taken up with the beginnings of a crowd that would build as the night’s performances engaged. Exposure to this type of environment changed how I listened, what I considered interesting and worth paying attention to, what I classified as noise or not, and ultimately changed how I, in turn, made music.
To help illustrate, contextualize and analyze the affect this environment had on both myself, and the sonic culture that developed in this hybrid performance venue/living space, I developed an archival/sound art project called ‘The Party Lab’.
The performance of sound-art works and music resides in a variety of sonic cultures but must necessarily flow between the performer and an audience and proscribes both a way of sounding and a way of listening. This flow is actually triangular: a shared sonic culture flows between a deliberate way of sounding and a learned way of listening in an environment that directs that flow.
Once music is actually performed, it might fall necessarily into categories that are dissonant with categories that seem appropriate pre-performance. Categories that can center on composition method, equipment used, or where it tends to be performed are essentially a type of meta-data, and these qualities might differ with categories drawn from a description of the sound itself. The term ‘Experimental Music’ might be too broad to respect these methods of categorization, but I’d like to argue that if it is employed as a literal term, where the methods used actually involve experiment, (that is, an attempt to produce unknown results) then I can speak to various Cageian techniques for getting ‘outside the self’. However, since Cage, I’d also argue that there has evolved a strong body of traditions for unintentional/intentional experiments in music, and that they are inhabited by their own strong performativity and compositional tropes of both producing and subsequently, listening. These experimental tropes represent a type of the sonic cultural training, a physical resonance that audiences and performers are suspended in. The categories of what we intend might differ from the categorization of what results from experiment.
In this essay, I’d like to attempt to tie my personal experiences as an artist (one exposed to high density sound and art environments) into various ways that one can be trained as an audience to value experimental composition and performance outcomes instinctively. I will describe my Party Lab project as a lens to view this type of cultural listening mindset through. Since the project was also an archival sound piece focused on recording and subsequently asking others to listen and interpret the output, I will finish off by analyzing one such interpretation, and matching it to to my own interpretation of the same recording.
This essay in 3 parts:
1. The Party Lab project and the ‘non-ideal’ listening environment
2. Experimental music terms and the exploration of a ‘listening culture’ as a type of sound art, via the melding of the listening crowd and the performance of sound.
3. Re-Analysis of a Party Lab Analysis, an illustration of sound-language as both poetic excursion and helpless phenomenological articulation.
Sound is always in spaces
Music is grouped categorized and listened to not only by its sonic qualities, but by where it is performed. It is also defined by where it reaches, where it is performed and listened to, sometimes where it is made (i.e. bedroom pop). These categories are drawn from context, they are social, and may bare little relation to the musical category the sonic character falls into (as if they were listened to in a blind test). New musical genres being created and sorted continuously, and must contend with the drift of meaning that words inherently present themselves. And in the constant sorting we must contend with the desire to remove some contextual information to simplify the analysis.
The location a sound is physically produced and heard is an incontrovertible extremity to the qualitative sonic experience. But it may be so fundamental to how sound is organized that this might seem to truncate the power and relevance of a possible ontology of sound experience. In contemporary digital culture, the notions of ‘place’ ‘space’ ‘site’ ‘location’ are made purposefully flexible to account for the speed and scale of a sonic idea’s networked transmission, but each node of a network still has a physical manifestation. Surely, we both need ears to hear and can experience the place transcendent facileness the wordless communication imparted by music production possesses. But where sound gets to, where it is listened to, can be different than where it tends to be found and where it comes from. While this is a cultural aesthetic experience, it is also quintessentially spatial, in the sense that a performance’s ritual environment is ‘sound, sounding’ in a physical space, a cultural transference between the artist and the audience. Culture happens in a space.
A hip-hop show performed at the philharmonic or a classical music piece performed in a basement seems off in the sense that the performed sound and the physical context within which it is performed meld together into a type of physical/social listening. It is truly a great delight to transplant the facile sound of different musics to different contexts, but the fact that this is a delight of newness and novelty points to the fact that certain sounds grouped as music are appropriate to, or born from certain specific physical spaces.
Each physical space is physically changed in accordance with the requirements for a certain specific type listening, commiserate with an entire audio culture, and demands that the space be designed, oriented and maintained for that learned listening.
Since “space is more than its apparent materiality” 1, it might be another way of saying that within its materiality it is a place for people to hear differently in a contiguous fashion. Given shifting, social aesthetics, we can assume that the continuum between auditioning sound as an audience member and producing/performing/experimenting with sound publicly occurs within ongoing culturally specific analysis – the room is a place where the people engaged with the ritual of listening have brought their ways of listening with them. Learned listening cultures group together in the spaces of performance that have been normalized for that specific type of listening.
“Sound art aesthetics, especially in an era of digital technology and networks, means a rethinking of sounds fixity, its location and its specificity, as well as what and whom actually produces it.” 2
Categorizing sound art, sound in the arts, sonic arts, sound based expression, or, Leigh Landy’s term, ‘sound based music’ all might come after the experience of the ritual of performing, since the listening experience is layered with the cultural experience of having possibly been in a non- streamlined, some might say non-ideal, listening environment, and given the maximally flexible character and overly broad definitions of experimental music, the variables in play tend to be numerous. Or put another way, in the collective experience of performance, one is never listening to just the products of the performance, one is listening to the entire space, the entire moment in time, together, including any ‘distortions’ lent by the space.
The type of sought after listening environment, being an experience of space, but not a space that has been pre-changed or designed to get out of the way of the sound experience according to some standard. Its common cultural model, then, is that it colors the listening experience in a way that might be unexpected, but it fits into a cultural tradition of listening, one replete with distortion, glitch and color. A listening culture centered on a particularly loose level of fidelity.
What and Whom
Who wouldn’t like to listen in the most ideal environment? Those without the resources to always demand and acquire a context-less listening experience that’s who. There is an underground, or at the very least, there are listeners who seek out less ‘normalized’ listening environments. ‘Underground’ for the purpose of this essay can mean ‘lack of resources’ or ‘no money for renovation or sound equipment’ or it can mean ‘I’ll take my culture with a lot of overall distortion and layering’. The development of a particular listening culture might be an idealized process, but the economics of art always bubbles beneath the surface. People always make do with what they have, humans demonstrably need to come together and listen, and access to the resources of listening tends to define what level of distortion one will accept. This ‘accepting’ this ‘making do’, makes its way through the resonance alchemy of human culture to become a self-identified aesthetic – “I like it when it sounds bad.”
The sound installation that listens
The Party Lab project had three developmental phases:
-The capture of crowd and building sounds in a space along with performances -Archival mixing
-Analysis of archive as music
-Sound environment and inculcated listening culture as sound art ‘russian-doll’ art piece performed over several years
1. The artists and the listening public were invited in to exchange their listening and their sounding
2. The environment itself, the house, was a piece of experimental sound work
3. The sonic capture of the time of the crowd in the space is itself a mixed multichannel sound piece that could be considered noise music for its ‘verticalization’ layering technique and distortion of space
4. The layering and chopping of recordings of different days together is a piece of experimental sound work
5. The analysis of a such a layered recording constants a type of ‘sound walk’ or ‘sound poem’
The music performed in this environment could be categorized as ‘experimental music’ or it couldn’t, but I think the totality of the experience captured could be considered a piece of sound art.
The environment that the Party Lab project was set up in, an underground performance venue in New York City called Silent Barn, was an environment for sonic experiment for the simple reason that the usual sonic/space relationships between audience and performer were disturbed. The art piece ‘the Party Lab Project’ was the lens to view the totality of this cascading and continuous space/time environment throughout.
The physical project was a recording system. It consisted of 14 different microphone placements around the industrial building that constituted the 2 floors of the venue. These mic placements were both dynamic microphones placed at about the height of an average person on a wall or in a corner, and contact mics on various surfaces, such as the stairs leading from the ground floor to the basement, and on furniture such as the 3 couches. One microphone was placed outside the building pointing downward from the front door. All of these mic positions were sent via large gage, bright red fire alarm cabling to a 16 channel SoundCraft Spirit4 mixer (usually used for mixing live music) that was screwed to the front wall in a small room/booth like area in the front of the house. An operator, or anyone, could climb a small staircase and access the mixer via headphones or speakers, monitor and mix the input from the mics, and record the resulting mix to a standard cassette tape via a stack of hi-fi recording equipment.
This particular configuration of microphones and the ability to attenuate individual microphones produces what I call a ‘collapse of space via unnatural attention’; depending on what order one turned up the microphones, a route through the building would be simulated; as in, the order they are turned up, the corresponding area of the building is artificially closer to the listener. Walking naturally through a building produces an attention to sonic details that are a real-time analysis of soundings closer and farther away, and thus the route is mapped and experienced. With all the microphones turned up to an equal volume, there is no route, and instead the listener is aurally astride the entire space. An attenuation configuration with quiet sounds amplified more than loud sounds would produce an ‘un-natural’ sound environment, one distorted in a specific spatial sense.
This system represented a desire to capture something that already existed in the space, but the specific technological choices made for collecting (and thus changing, coloring) the sound was the crux of the system as a ‘sound art’ installation. The bright red cabling was coiled, and swooped from microphone to tethers on the ceiling, running in histrionic bunches on its route through the house. The mics themselves were hung to attract attention, jutting out from the wall on small pedestals. Inside the booth, the mixer was hooked up to a cassette recorder with a stack of fresh blanks at the ready. The entire system was positioned opposite to how recording infrastructure is usually, where the tech is designed to be as unobtrusive as possible. The design was intent on calling attention to the fact that the proceedings were being recorded, but in such a way that the exact focus could not be necessarily determined from the design. When one sees a microphone pointed in a certain direction, it follows that what is around the microphone is worthy of recording. With the over abundance of microphones, the entire space, and so also every experience inside the space, had the potential of occupying an equal importance. This runs counter to the standard recording practice of a performance venue; in these settings humans organize themselves into the ones that listen and the ones that produce the sound. The installation visually refutes this hegemony.
In the same sense, the sound mixing down to only a cassette tape is another subversion of the hierarchy of sounds in a performance space. The common cassette tape (post roughly the year 2000,) is not seen as the most ideal recording format, but one that is still sought for its physicality, quickness and cheapness. The mixing down of the system’s output to cassette, and that being the most available option, communicates the importance of the resulting mix over any one sound event that could occur within the mix. The same near instinctive knowledge that even a layman would have as to the quality of the medium (“that looks old”) would likewise mean various other facts about possible routes the information contained therein could take; that the sound information stored on the cassette would not be easily index-able (as it would be in a large analogue block of sound without random access), nor would it be of a sufficient quality to extract a representation of any specific sound data at a traditionally satisfying fidelity. Nor would it be easy to digitally proliferate the sound data. The medium itself communicates a sense of social scale and information potentialities.
The specific arraignment of the recording and mixing technology meld with visual presentation of the microphone array to undercut both the usual ‘surveillance apparatus’ social concern of a visually present recording system, and ideas of the traditional performance venue’s hierarchy of sounds, where the listening audience has come to hear sounds from the stage and not necessarily the sounds made by the building of which the stage is a part of, or of the crowd itself that came to hear.
This is a sound installation that is listening rather than “sounding” in space. It is concerned with blocks of time in the space and the totality of sound during those times, as well as potentialities of that totality. Even if the installation doesn’t generate sound, it is still a sound installation, one that calls attention to the sound already around a listener in the space, and works to hear in a specific way. So while the archival output of the system can be analyzed as a type of experimental sound piece, the system itself is a kind of silent installation piece that is a melding of the architecture and the rhythms of listening culture found within.
The perceiving human carves out different groupings of sounds with their attention span, and while these groupings can be called ‘experiences’ they are necessarily a truncation of all sounds that are occurring in a space. When the system is utilized to bring sounds within the proximity to the microphone positions up to the same volume, this violates the traditional listening-space hierarchy of the performance venue, where differences in proximity and architectural design (the stage, etc.) that seek to impact the attention span and separate, somewhat, the signal from the noise.
The next phase of the project is also made visible by the physical set up, that of the recordings that result from this system. All these microphones, blatantly going straight to a medium such as a cassette tape, points to a particular type of relationship to the archival output. The audio on the cassette would have to be listened to without easy random access, and the case of the multi-track recordings being drawn from multiple locations layered over each other would not bias any particular location (and would be made of a mixture of locations in succession as the operator turns up different mics both at different times and simultaneously) the contents of the tapes would seem to require a type of listening that would differ from the type required of a performance document. The layered mixing of incongruous locations during a time when a crowd occupied the building could be considered a distorted sound piece made of multiple field recordings.
The physical arraignment of the system, built out of older audio technology (that was designed to be the best it commercially was capable at the time of its design) has been repurposed to illustrate, and in some sense to match, qualities that the sound environment itself presents, but which we normally deploy technology to overcome – that of a highly dissonant environment packed with sound information and arraignments of human interaction that could be artful, but nerveless distract from maintaining a listening and sound performance tradition that guides participants and their attention to one group of sounds over another. The listening hegemony exerted by music performance spaces is very strong and presupposes a type of listening culture that removes ‘extraneous’ distortions with the goal of producing the highest quality listening environment, which it could be argued reciprocally creates the desire for a specific pallet of sounds, more akin to listening to produced pre-recorded media. Leigh Landy refers to this as a type of ‘media envy’ in her book ‘What’s the Matter with Experimental Music?’-
“A Recording is a registration, but also a way of perfecting through technology. Music interpretation has always called for striving for high level craftsmanship…the perfection called for here is flawless music making whatever that may be. A path to perfection leads along a studied multichannel technique of montage, repeated performance, and often a final splice down eliminating all faults.”3
This was written in the 1990s and I feel as if it’s even more relevant today,
as the technology and techniques for perfecting the editing of recordings is exponentially more accessible. The constant consumption of ‘hyper-real’ recordings and media create a feedback loop to pre-require a high level of fidelity (that is an ‘expert’ recording with a high signal to noise ratio) for even the type of listening that could occur in a non-pre-recorded listening experience. Its for this reason that environments like a local underground music venue might be sought out as a listening environment. The constant immersion in the hyper real might create the desire for its opposite, might leave one open to a sonic tableau that is not perfect, or have a type of perfection at its goal, and that there is a type of stifling that occurs with the technological reach to accentuating maximum signal for consumption. To set up a system to record a potential sound, implies that the sound deserves to be recorded, and the desire to be recorded as much as possible, via this strange media envy of the hyper-real, post-edited media that we would then aurally consume, would result in the world we live in now, where some people stream themselves continuously, and so instinctively comport themselves for constant consumption. Landy continues:
“This implies that one of the primary bases of music – spontaneity- is being partially replaced by extreme rigidity (that music is played through a machine does not necessarily mean that musicians should sound like one should they?)…It also implies that one can be presented with a recording of a given improvisation that has been made permanent as “the piece” in the mind of many a listener. Is this really the musicians intention?” 4
The overall strategy of the Party Lab project, then, was to listen and record; but record in such a distorted way that the potentialities of the recording could be interpreted as an experiment in sound, time, and space; this served to mirror the type of listening culture that would enjoy coming to a less-than-ideal- by-modern-standards listening environment, to listen to a performance and be subsumed into a recording as an aspect of the totality of the sound. An aesthetic enjoyment of distortion, glitch and mistakes leading to a particular character is implied, or at least this is yet another raw human tradition of listening. Rather than separating the sound into groups more than we already do, have the sonic world be of a less rigid character, and this less rigid character could follow all the way into a recording of a night in the space itself.
The sonic character of global capitalism necessitates the professionalization and corporate optimization of all social spaces, and yet the act of listening together is primordial enough that we will engage in it, actively, in non-ideal situations, even in what amounts to the professional equivalent of a filthy cavern. As listening culture succumbs more and more to a type of aesthetic neurosis and normalized as algorithmically deployed content, it becomes reciprocally traditional to seek out grimier more distorted activation points, to pine for the perceived authenticity of lower fidelity. And so the long tradition of secret raves in abandoned buildings and broken industrial art collectives sweeps across time.
Experimental Music, and other terms of endearment
“When experimental music is effectively made and presented, it speaks to our interaction with the world. It goes from the center – what we already know- to the margin – what we don’t know- and back again, so that new realities are present along with, or sometimes even in place of, our previous perceptions of our own lives. This work does not suggest “other” worlds, but instead strengthens relations with this world.” 5
I’d argue that the Party Lab installation is an experiment channeling the sounds of ‘the space’ and ‘the crowd’ into a type of ‘music’. In so doing, it is a machine listening and recording an active culture, an activity that produces a further type of experimental music, one consisting of layered field recordings. The components of this music are the sounds of both ‘other music’ and the ‘activity’ of the listening crowd, accentuated and interwoven with the performance ritual auditioned and observed. This occurs in a way that flows from the space itself, but in the sense of an inhabited and somewhat non-architecturally specific sense unique to this environment, and via the technology of the installation, it is decidedly not architecturally fixed (since sound culture is ultimately movable, a crowd in any space will share acoustic similarities, and the fact that sound after its inception point exists only in memory and transferrable recordings).
This music consists of ‘sounds’ made of ‘what happens around when music is heard by a crowd’ and I could call the result experimental music, and the system for collecting the sound could be a form of ‘sound art’. The distinction is aesthetically important because this project and this listening environment rapidly shifts between various definitions, performance space or living space. The entire listening space is built for potentialities, and the culture of listening promoted within the physical space is one of layered categories, and sought out for this sonic aspect.
Here I’d like to make a distinction between ‘sound art’ – a “spatially considered investigation via both eye and ear” as defined by the German term klangkunst (and analyzed by Andreas Engstrom and Asa Stjerna in their article ‘Sound Art or Klangkunst?’) Contrasted with the broader (or vaguer) term ‘Experimental Music ‘– a “position of openness, of inquiry of uncertainty, of discovery” as defined by Jennie Gottschalk in her book ‘Experimental Music since 1970’.
I’m interested in this distinction because the physical environment, the listening culture, the sounds produced, and the resulting ‘art’ that flowed from the intersection of these things within the Party Lab project, relied on aspects of both a “focus on the sound material’s relationship to a spatial location” 6 and distinct categories of “indeterminacy, change, experience, non-subjectivity and research” 7 which can simultaneously contradict the ‘sound materials relationship to the location’ in question, the underground performance venue that the installation was installed in. I consider the project to be a rich platform for analyzing conflicting aspects of learned listening culture and how a patina of noise affects the aesthetic reception of music and sound analysis. Weather or not some performance within the space could be consisted sound art or experimental music or some other organizing term, I’d argue the sonic character of the entire building was a type of sound art, that bequeathed different types of experimental music when recorded in a certain way. Because of this, the environment is sought out by interested parties to engage in a specific type of listening.
As Alan Licht near laments “There has been a tendency to apply the term sound art to any experimental music of the second half of the twentieth century” 8 But the term is just very broad in English, and I find the German Klangkunst to evoke the necessary architectural/spatial requirements of the listening culture devoted to a ‘pre-distorted’ (or perhaps, ‘un-filtered’). To develop an aesthetic listening experience around distortion and sonic refuse, one also needs a physical space where this is supported, and this is a real space where sound occupies, reverberates and persists. But, if need be, the term ‘space’ can be taken as not a corporeal place, and then we are farther away from formal klangkunst.
“While the terminology of ‘site’ appears and disappears…‘site’ continues to present a location both real and imaginary, actualized and theoretical, for considering the physical parameters of place and the phantasmic projections of what may signal.” 9
Engstrom and Stjerna quote Brandon Labelle here to accentuate the difference between the usage of klangkunst and the English term ‘Sound Art’, but the term’s distinctions and differing resonances of meaning meld back together when describing a sonic environment that both exists as a physical interactive space (a house where people live constantly occupied by a crowd) and a site for the performance of music. The melding of performance and incidental noises elevated to the same level of hierarchy, through systematic recording and archival verticalization, fuses these two divergent conceptions; sound in a physical space that evokes, requires and responds to the particularities of that space, and sounds that happen to contain music.
“The expression ‘sound as an aesthetic category’ is emblematic for the English literature on sound art, and so is also the tendency to speak of a division between music and sound.” 10
That a space for the development of a specific sound or listening culture would be focused more (or even equally) on ‘aesthetics’ as it does on acoustic treatment of the space or extractive recording technology, and that the space that the sounds come to inhabit would sometimes be more conducive to distorted noise then clean signal, would seem to be in line with a distinct cultural inertia away from known listening paradigms. It would illustrate an attraction to a listening environment that is essentially a type of sound art, a klangkunst that incorporates both the sound of the performance and the sound of the listening and reacting to a performance inside a physically and socially specific location. “By focusing on sites different formations, sound art is further conceptualized through the performative, where the performing body is highlighted in sound works” 11 The ‘performing body’, as a relatively newly recognized ‘site’ or space, inevitably is somewhere, in a space where people congregate with both a sound system and a bathroom, and maybe a window. ‘Further conceptualization’ cannot escape this fact of listening.
It makes a certain amount of sense to me that the totality of the sound moving through the space would be instinctively divided into music or non- music, since in a performance space the hierarchy of listening descends most extremely, yet never totally, during a music performance, but an interest or attention to breaking that hierarchy would attract a listener to a less than ideal listening environment and would instead be a badge of honor to revel in the sonic distortions that flow naturally in such an environment, and that the recorded output of this environment could be recorded in such a way as to enliven and confound this dynamic.
Verticalization of a crowd
The recordings that result from this installation would seem to be a recording of a performance in a venue, but since the venue occupied what I consider to be a specific and distinct social and listening culture, and the system was actually a sound installation designed to produce experimental music, the recordings were not meant to be the document that recordings from a music venue usually are. The sounds of the bus stopping outside and the crease of the people sitting in the couch or walking up the stairs were meant to have the same importance in the mix as whatever performance was playing in the other room. This system and environment produced layered sound recordings that required analysis, in the sense they were designed to be aurally confusing.
Analysis is taken as an artistic conceit to stand in for merely auditioning the recordings, but with the additional process of writing down what they were hearing, calling attention to the process of listening and articulating sound into language. The process was artistically ‘pseudo-scientific’ (in that they were handed a pre-made survey worksheet) and meant to focus the participant, via performed authority, on the necessity of translating the sound experience into words. The further conceit of the art piece was that the maximally layered nature of the recordings made discerning specific sounds difficult, as the recordings were distorted via layering and consisted of constant intersections of sounds. The multi-positioned natured of the microphones ensured that there was never one sound by itself and the listening was collapsed into a verticalized listening space intended to accentuate, or call attention to, the totality of all sounds occupying the building at the time of the recording.
Gottschalk describes a ‘noise’ process of ‘verticalization’ as “another technique for accumulating sounds is to layer multiple streams of sound on top of each other. These layers often have some attribute or source in common” 12 and I believe this is appropriate to attribute to the Party Lab project. Each microphone records the same building from their respective positions, but the constantly shifting nature of a crowd (including interleaved performances) and the microphones attenuation of incidental and purposeful sounds to the same level, create a type of ‘spatial verticalization’.
The term itself always calls to mind a mental ordering of sound more akin to a digital DAW, or it signals the entering into a conceptual space of listening where one is stacking objects to a degree that the amount of the objects cannot be determined. It’s a compacting, but it belies a particular technological approach to sound.
In chapter 5 of her book Experimental Music since 1970, Gottschalk analyses several works by artist Peter Ablinger, and comments on techniques of verticalization in several of his pieces that are intended to situate a listener in a listening space. Listening becomes more about personal potentialities and the recognition of the listening self than it is a predetermined aural approach; an approach which could be inflaming a tendency for the listener to separate themselves from what they are hearing.
“As soon as it is no longer about treating the sounds as individuals to be liberated, but about the real individuals – about us, the listeners” 13
The sonic overload of a dense layered sound-field composed of multiple distorted signals prompts a seeking sort of listening, in opposition to the type of listening that is created by a composition of clean separated sounds that could potentially lead to a disengaged sort of listening, a more passive mode of listening that Leigh Landy references as “music –taking”
There is something about the conscripted attention fostered by the technologically lush systems of contemporary media deployment that we might yearn to escape. For some, immersion in noise gives a kind of freedom to choose one’s own path of attention. It’s as if we can trust overload treatment of each moment-to-moment aspect of the listening experience with similar gravity, packed with information to untangle or follow, every moment a potential beginning.
Since our attention always must “hobble” along, instinctively separating what to be listened to from what we are hearing, each person’s experience of a dense, distorted signal has more of a potential to be drastically different. The use of distortion here is to increase the likelihood of multiple interpretations upon audition.
This type of listening becomes evokes a “hobbled truth of the observation and an aesthetic phenomena itself” 15
In this quote there is a dissonance between ‘reality’(the totality of possible experiances) and ‘music’ (pre-hobbled composition designed for efficient aesthetic transmission) that a sound piece, a literal experiment, might endeavor to tease out, what Gottschalk refers to as a “non-fictional” 16 music composition. That one possible conceit of ‘music’ is an existence as a fantasy of a streamlined reality; of human desires fulfilled. Whereas the whole point of a ‘musical experiment’ might have a more direct connection to all the details occurring in a sounding, one that has more of a chance of including the listener in a reciprocal relationship, where the act of listening itself is illuminated. The act of listening becomes a type of seeking research. The challenge of experimental music is in the training it might take to shake off the sense that a distorted signal, a burst of noise, is purposeful and not an unwanted mistake, the violation of a shared fantasy. “Noise is often understood to be an either uninteresting or disturbing sound.” 17
This is an oddly rationalist listening continuum. As sound being ‘unwanted’ or not is a distinct categorization that one might apprehend in real time, but might conclude solely via memory. The tendency to separate the listening experience into ‘unwanted and wanted’ falls within a distinct tradition, alluded to by Engstrom and Stjerna, of separating sounds into music and non- music sounds in English sound art literature. The aesthetic desire to separate sound from music might mirror a western philosophical reflex for ‘sense’ over ‘non-sense’ and ‘clean’ over ‘distorted’.
The economic and social rhythms of capitalism require a constant perfecting and streamlining of signal to noise in order to maximize commercial value. Listening takes time, and the development of a dominating economy of listening purports to maximize the efficiency of any time spent listening. But since this is what we need technology to do, (either post experience via editing, or live via amplification and spatial acoustics control) it becomes a constant pre- supposition of what is inherently useful. Perhaps the aesthetics of noise, and subsequently a cultural listening environment that allows for noise, might allow for more self-identification and definition via its listening potentialities. Aesthetic attraction to distorted signal is not a new thing, but the very word has ‘degree of wrongness’ in it’s meaning, and so the dissonance is between the always relative nature of distortion (‘distortion, as compared to what?’) and the systems that create and foster the sound qualities that are coded as distortion. Can it really be called distortion if there is no pre-clean signal that is then distorted? If a sound is ‘distortion’ at the point of its inception?
Gottschalk quotes Christian Scheib on Ablinger – “Noise is not the enemy of information, it is, by its coloredness, by its texture, by the change from one texture to the next one, the enabler of information.” 18 [emphasis mine]
I would regard this to be the basis of much experimental music, where there is a confounding of signal to achieve more meaningful sonic coloring, but yet these desires are still being accessed via somewhat traditionalist listening spaces and cultures. There must be a room for this learned listening and appreciation, and since aesthetic attraction to a distorted signal does not require a specifically designed space (indeed, the less designed the space is, the more distorted the listening experience most likely is), the listening culture would gravitate to the in-between spaces, or spaces re-purposed for listening.
The listening environment of the ritual performance house.
The learned environment comes into a listening space as a type of non- rational resonance, a sociality that requires a physical space to occur between an audience and a crowd of listeners. Contemporary noise music is still primarily enjoyed as a performed ritual in the sense that there is a vast and wide technological separation between how the music is presented in a performance and how it is consumed at home via the even more normalized systems of home audition; I’d wager not a lot of people constantly listen to music on a broken stereo at full volume. Experimental music must still usually be home-auditioned on decidedly non-experimental systems, systems designed to reproduce ‘music’. The performance space, with its all-too-many variables, allows for the usually unwanted or harsh sound palette to be accepted by a self-identified culture of listening. A place to be wrong, less defined, or less rational about the ‘objectively’ terrible sounds that can result from an indeterminate sound experiment. Physical resonance with other listeners in a physical space is important to temporarily upend the usual sonic hegemony of a social space. This might be a fragile thing, since I’m not sure if you got up and started smashing chairs together on minute 1 of a public performance of 4’ and 33” that your actions would be accepted in the sprit of Cageian indeterminacy and non- subjectivity. The physical resonance between the performer and listener of experimental sounds-as-music comes from a trained response and interest in blurry inefficient and distorted sound environment.
The performance venue that the Party Lab project was installed in was itself a blurred definition of a type of physical space, since it was both where people actively lived and where listeners and performers gathered simultaneously. This blurred definition could not be called a rational or ideal listening space. Erik Davis, quoting Veit Erlmann in the book Reason and Resonance points out how physical resonance violates phenomenological separation:
“Rationalists characterize the mind as a kind of mirror capable of capturing accurate representations of the outside world while remaining fundamentally separate from that world. Resonance, on the other hand, is a phenomenon of conjunction, of the blurring of the boundary between subject and object. Rationalists ignore or suppress resonance, which nonetheless remains.” 19
This competition between a rational desire to listen from outside the
world, perhaps in a pre-determined sonically attuned space, to the more immersed, and physically resonant, space of an acoustically and socially distorted building is similar to the interplay of how the attention of a learned listening reflexively falls into a hierarchy of performance/audience. The analysis of the Party Lab installation output recordings attempts to reorient a listener away from that reflex.
The value of the recorded output is an attempt to achieve a type of self- determined listening through referring to the act of listening as ‘analysis’. The act of listening by carefully noting what sounds are present each second describes a route through the building that could not be physically achieved, and ends up being a description of a type of listening that is already, or becomes, sensitive to a sonic tableau full of overloaded intersections and distorted layering’s of speech, human activity, fragmented music, and sounds usually regulated to the background of attention. These qualities flow from the ambiguities inherent to the environment the recordings are pulled from.
•Field recording analysis: an old and new interpretation
What follows is the result of a listening session analysis undertaken by a participant in 2011. To me, it represents a type of ‘sound poem’, a record of listening undertaken; in some way, it describes a phantom route through the space in question, a score illuminating a sound sequence in time. I will follow it with an analysis of the same recording of my own. In this way, I hope to show that two different interpretations of the same dense sound piece can share similar strategies for translating and communicating qualitative changes in an experimental sound piece, where distortion, layering and an overall strategy of sonic maximalism become the building blocks of a sound space-time experience.
The analysis consisted of a participant listening to the cassette recording and writing down what he heard, second by second. The recording is a concert of experimental music, and the tape lasts for about 30 minutes for each side of the tape. Since this is occurring in real time, there must inevitably be a dual focus on sound and interpretation, and that split focus and need to keep going would tend to bias one sound, usually the loudest sound, amongst the recorded layers.
A few dependable groupings emerge, as the listener seems sensitive to when a musical performance starts and stops, but the overall vocabulary seems to be mostly ‘onomatopoeia’: verbally representing a sequence of distorted sounds. The sequence is notably linear, there are very few instances where the listener describes sounds in a group, or makes a comment about sounds overlapping. The listener notes when “music” starts and stops and at what volume it may be, and speaks of pitches such as ‘high’ and ‘low’. Interestingly, the listener describes some sounds as ‘background’ (which requires one to set other sounds as relative to those in the foreground) even though the system tends to spatially flatten the sounds, obscuring which is background and which is foreground, leading to the conclusion that it is a choice of which sounds are more important or attention grabbing… ‘Distortion’ and ‘distorted sounds’ is mentioned often, and seems to be a qualitative distinction. Size terms, such as ‘big’ are also used. Human speech is both referred to generically as ‘talking’ and as specific words. The accent of the speaker is even referred to (‘American woman talking’). One of the most interesting terms used several times is a color term – ‘grey sound’. Overall, the listener treats the sound data as a sequence of individual sounds and the analysis is in the form resembling a list. I’ve highlighted sections where the listener seems to be describing a performed set of music (in blue) and when they appear to be describing sounds between the sets picked up by the system (in orange). Additionally, some notable moments are highlighted in green.
Analysis on 12.06.2011 (OLD)
Low distorted rumble burst, machine gun like Conversation American accents
“…Alright you guys don’t touch me again…” “…Yeah yeah…”
Low distorted rumble, shot, squeals, beeps, tape scrubbing
Sustained high pitched squeals
Wind on a mic
Sounds like R2D2 falling down the stairs, breaking
Whoops claps, whistles, talking
Music fades up talking continues
Hiphop with discordant trumpet and brass
Very high pitched point tone
Something drops to the floor – crash High pitched tone like sleghbells shaking Tapping cup with wood object
Mid pitch feedback honk Crashing banging
Talking getting louder
Loose metal bang – crash sound Music ends
Music resumes faster tempo
Close mic voice says “rape scene, parallel expanse mode is rape scene, lets see, 24?”
Shot, feedback, squeal
Guitar feedback, wavering pitch
Muffled vocal blubbering
More distorted over driven sounds
Hiss, like steam, escaping machinery
Distorted sounds build up, mushing together
Sustained feedback tone
Higher pitch merge as cleaner
lower pitches are muddled
Crashing and banging (industrial machinery?)
Lower pitch static
Higher distorted guitar is sustained and noise pitch
Permissive reputed glitches
Overdrive sounds out
“Disgusted” repeated phrase
A couple of people clapping
Repeated scream like sound
Whooping and clapping
Repeated guitar hit
Music fades in, a ballad
Music fades out
New track fades in, another ballad, soul? Talking
Music drops volume
Repeated drum hit motif
New drum hit motif
Buzz, squeal, drum hit
Computer game sounds, rewind sound
Loud guitar noises
Crunchy game sounds
Drops to guitars
Gong gong gong gong
Barp barp barp
BREAK – Side B
Swooping swishes and low rumbling, dips
Drill sound, increasing pitch – sustained high pitch
And drill squeal
Sounds like a factory floor with multiple machines operating
Computer game waaks
Tinkling of keys. Light klinks
Voice talks – deep and authoritarian
“Alright, thanks for coming, international noise conspiracy”
“Smoking and drinking”
“Future I…our brains”
“This is how I want all of time”
“…unfortunately, people seem to have…”
Recorded sound fades up
Voice over keyboard dreaming
Muffled voice over, talking
“…electrical signals interpreted by our brains…”
“…unconscious …existence as well…”
Higher squeals Talking
blurps, glitchy bursts
Mid smooth feedback tone
Low bass grumble wave of noise crashes and fades Interrupted bursts of noise bleeps
Three main tones. Harmony
Blip percussive smattering
Bleeps, height RMP tone, low medium high, repeated Grating noises
High pitched oscillations
Pulsing feedback tone
Grey noise swaths
Rumbling on mic
Vocal recorded sample, American woman talking, cries Talking
Metal music plays, volume low, talking
Harsh grating noise
Slabs of white noise
Bursts of noise
High pitched buzz tone Sweeps of gnarly audio assault Bass tones, pulse
Wahhhhs of great noise Screaming
“…great work year…”
mans voice “…doomsday…”
Talking layers Music stops playing Bleeps
A new analysis
During my listening session, I found it much harder to discount the layering during my listening session. The crowd talking picked up by the system in particular seemed to be always slightly present, and I was much more struck with the sounds that interrupted each other. I found it harder to tell what was performance and what was not, although the clapping and audience response made it obvious when a performance ended. Where I felt the previous listener relied primarily on onomatopoeia as a sound descriptor, I found myself gravitating toward action words (“wash”) and attempts at decoding the tech making the sounds (“reverb”) to describe what I was hearing. As the recording progressed in time, I found myself mentally delineating between both persistent sounds, and sudden sounds, where sudden sounds demand more attention and are placed sequentially on a mental timeline of listening, whereas persistent sounds are noted more when they start and stop; except, in the case of sounds persistent in time, the beginning and ending of a type of sound would be obscured by a sudden interrupting sound. This perceptual tic continually made me register that a certain group of sounds would be the “sound bed” against which other sounds presented themselves. This would progress in an interlocking fashion, where different persistent sounds would function as a ‘bed’ for other less-but-still persistent sounds that would in turn act as a bed for others. I found it most difficult to distinguish between performed sound and incidental house and crowd sounds in the beginning of the recording, which I’ve highlighted in blue.
In comparing the two listening sessions, I am aware that my experience listening and living in this sound-world (this recording is of a place where I lived); probably leads to an intense warping and bias of the overall listening experience. Still, there are verbal sound-tropes we both adhere to, calling back to relatable metaphors for what we are hearing (“motor sounds”), noting when something starts or stops, and generally, trying to ‘keep up’. There is something about the language of the other listener’s analysis that leaves me with the sense that while they appreciate these kinds of sounds as music, they perhaps do not actively create this type of music personally. They are game for it, at least, going into great detail, and just that willingness to engage in listening to a recording of this nature belies a self-identification with a certain type of listening culture.
Analysis on 08.20.2019 (NEW)
Full frequency filtered noise
Sense of space
Multiple conversations, 8-12
High-frequency sound bed
Loud metallic bang, super close
Loud high frequency sound
Close voice window shut?
Cascading percussive sounds
Human voice layers
Creaking, sharp sounds
Long tone, talking, wind on a mic
Sounds like a whip?
Small shifting sound
Deep feedback oscillations mixed with midrange frequency sweep
Long high-pitched tone
Clapping, sounds like a bus?
Horns saxophone solo
Plate or pan drops?
Small whispers with distant dragging across wood
Plate clicks, sounds like something being scraped off a platter with a spoon
Pans being thrown down once
Silence, mic cuts out?
Distant sound becomes close, dull tones
Talking, 3 conversations?
Music, two different musics
Feedback bloom and silenced
“…ha hahah HA yeah…”
woman’s voice “donner is friendly”
“that’s what I thought”
sound of metal, hollow metal
dog bark, amplified
music stops starts again
clear “high-hat” drum sound, door closing
shaking, wood and metal
long saxophone glissando upward and downward?
“…that’s something I did…”
bass solo starts, music is pre-rerecorded, sounds like distorted jazz
close voice “apparently….rape scene”?
“…that’s happening, we’re ready”
“…what does it matter….”
“is that the big AAAAA wave”
“plornking” sound, repeated
distorted guitar tone starts and stops
low bass pulse
metal hit with reverb
distinct sound of chains being handled, door closes
“…thanks, at least…”
“they lead me to collage…”
amplified vocals over whispered conversation
“you’ve lead me”
human voice screaming
feedback tone fluxuates between high frequency and low frequency
sound field fill up with distorted crinckling
metal whipping sound
grinding, like a motor
electronic reverb, metal, talking, footsteps
loud bang, sounds close
mid range static
human voice, shouted “WELENDE”?
feet jumping on a wooden floor sound, screaming, chains
scraping from multiple directions
off color whine
metal whipping, glass
“fried electronic” sound
“…your just really..”
looping vocals, high filtered “they disgust”
“….oh my god!…”
spinning metal sounds hitting
moaning sound, amplified
very loud close voice “huh”
looped sound, siren bark, whirring, distorted alarm, talking
guitar playing a chord progression
piano sound starts stops
conversations Motown music Glass breaks Wooden scraping Spring sound
Quiet muffled music
“…yeah I saw that…”
“oh my god”
“…we’ll stay together near the grocery store…”
“…4 of them…”
metal strings being pet lightly
electronic belch noise
repeated percussive bangs, loud clear, music, multiple talking, whispers “…low grade.”
Loud electronic beep, short silences between beep percussive clang Small frequency sweeps
“…oh, ok that’s…”
“it’s the route”
“they are all falling”
Distant videogame sound
Mid-range frequency sweeps
Low tones mixed with pitch sweep
Large filter sweep on one to three tones
“are you sure?”
wind noise, car breaks
horn sound starts and stops short pitch rise
alarm sound reverb
loud “Plink” sound
“…you could wait for like seven years”
blaring tone separated by short silences
large pitch and frequency sweep from low to high
BREAK – Side B
Sounds like the sea, but made of metal Ringing tone
Pulse sounds low and slow
High pitched saw-blade sound Resolves to high, sustained oscillation More high tones poke through
All suddenly gets muffled
cascade of thunder
high tone pokes through again and then disappears
classic laser blast sounds, echo
all sounds echo slightly
all distorted low and mid range frequencies drop out
high pitched tone
Light tinkling metal
Small background whirring
Amplified announcement: “casper electronics is next, smoking and drinking is in the basement
“…unfortunately people have….”
“science is unfortunate”
slow careful piano with reverb
voice over “…its called residual self image, the mental projection of your digital self…”
overall talking rises and falls
low rumble tone
sudden artificial reverb of a much larger space
lots of layered conversations
sounds like fire burning
distorted noise wash
rumbling thins out
small squelching sound
short break, silence, whistling
two bit crushed tones fight for a second
slow pulse width modulated sound phases in and out
lots of crashing
sounds of crashing continues
large distorted horn wave pans across
burned static sound
talking fades in and out
static pops sound like rain
“…I think that’s slowly a road…”
several motor sounds at the same time, talking still present
three feedback tones cycle through a pattern motor sounds persist
electronic sound like a large animal howling looped sequence of static tones
jittering glitches, rhythmically, talking fades in in and out excited yelling
motor breakdown sound
rhythm becomes broken
blast of crumbling electronic noise, very loud
feedback and applause
“…there’s no power…”
talking and the sound of wind
“…we’ve got an electrician coming…”
“I want you to hear the difference between…so happy…once up!…” sounds of children yelling with delight
“what a nice little boy…”
punk guitar music starts and stops repeatedly
many layered conversations dominate
faster guitar music
car breaks sound
“…Oh OH oh…”
static burst, talking
amplified static wash
delayed and amplified human screaming
low frequency and high frequency static
low static plunge
high feedback tone
sound of electricity arching
pitch up from low to high
amplification turns muddy, motor sound talking
sounds like a truck transmission grinding
sound like a buzzsaw cutting wood mixed with electricity arching low grumble, like a large animal
low frequency tone
loud storm and rain sound
Very loud metal banging
Very loud rumbling
Low frequency alarm sound
Long tone, clapping
Very high pitch sweeps from high to higher
Buzzsaw sound returns
Woman’s voice says “you have it?”
Someone breathing close to the ear
Wind across microphone clipping
amplified voice “Leave”
“…”oh I though you asked is there any comedy involved?” amplified voice “who stinks?”
guitar music starts
creaking and wood wining sound
multiple conversations, excited, loud and soft
soft guitar, plays, not in time with music
thin high static sound
1. To “exist outside of the cannon of classifiable sounds” is a self- identification, one that purposefully adopts a type of “not-knowing” with respect to the possible outcomes of a performance, which becomes a type of ‘research’.
2. The listening environment of the “performance ritual house” creates a type of listening that favors layering and texture based experiential analysis, and an adoption of ‘distortion’ as the primary aesthetic currency
3. The learned audience response to self-identified “non-music” experimenting reinforces traditional live composition and performance tropes. i.e. people listening makes it into music
4. Underground music identification stems from identification with a type of ‘fidelity’ and with a ‘layered stimuli’ experience (i.e. talking over music, audience call and response, banter, etc.), a type of social resonance with a sound attribute, or a way of listening.
5. An audience is ‘trained’ in the act of listening by a self-identified audio culture
6. Glitch and distortion are present in sound via the act of analysis, as the translation of sound into language requires some ideal of cleanliness and non-distortion to compare it to, which is inevitably the hyper reality of the perfected recorded media that listeners consume. This warps sonic characteristics in the act of putting sound into language.
1. Brandon LaBelle, Background noise: Perspectives in Sound Art (2006), xii
2. Ehrlich and Labelle, Surface Tension: Problematics of site (Errant Bodies
Press 2003), p 19
3. Leigh Landy, What’s The Matter with Today’s Experimental Music?
(Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996), p 23
4. Ibid, p24
5. Jennie Gottschalk, Experimental Music since 1970 (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), p 4
6. Andreas Engstrom and Asa Stjerna, “Sound Art or Klangkunst? A reading of the German and English Literature on Sound Art,” Journal it’s in, (Date), p1
7. Jennie Gottschalk, Experimental Music since 1970 (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), p 5
8. Alan Licht, “Sound Art, beyond music, between categories,” (New York: Rizzoli International 2017), p12
9. Ehrlich and Labelle, Surface Tension: : Problematics of site (Errant Bodies Press 2003), p 11
10.Andreas Engstrom and Asa Stjerna, “Sound Art or Klangkunst? A reading of the German and English Literature on Sound Art,” Journal it’s in, (Date), p 13
11. Ehrlich and Labelle, Surface Tension (Errant Bodies Press 2003), p 14 12.Jennie Gottschalk, Experimental Music since 1970 (Bloomsbury
Academic, 2016), p 159
13.Ibid, p 158
14.Leigh Landy, What’s The Matter with Today’s Experimental Music?
(Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996), p 23
15. Jennie Gottschalk, Experimental Music since 1970 (Bloomsbury
Academic, 2016), p 162 16.Ibid, p4
17.Ibid, p 155
19.Erik Davis, “Resonance”, Unsound:Undead (Urbanonomic Media LTD,
2019) p 102