Composing and Soundscaping. Space Is the Place.

My first blog post will reflect on composition and soundscapes in the light of the opening concert of Borealis, Space Is the Place, 9th March 2016 at Bergen School of Architecture (BAS).

“What experimental music and art festivals can bring into our attention is that everything in our society could be organized completely differently,” the composer Alwynne Pritchard said in a conversation at a Ny Musikk event in Bergen a while ago.

I thought of this remark as I walked in the dark “silo” at BAS, smelling like stone and cement. (The room had this smell, not me.) The performances were located at several places in the rooms and outside the building. Instead of sitting passively as an audience, one could walk around and “visit” the sounds, curiously seeking the sources and listening from different angles.

At one moment the door to the “silo” was opened and a motet was played from the parking area by car horns, performed by Ensemble Pamplemousse. The banal sounds of the car horns formed a beautiful musical process, consisting of several layers of tones and rhythmic patterns, repeated in minimalist ways. The audience laughed in the beginning, due to the element of surprise. I was a bit relieved when the laughter faded out and the sounds themselves became the focus of attention.

The concert program is written under the text.

The opening event had similar features as Nordic Music Days in Copenhagen in 2015, and some other new music festivals from the recent years. At NMD, too, the audience could choose their own way of participating. There were concerts and installations going on at several locations in the heart of Copenhagen. Only some of the events were traditional concerts. On several occasions choirs and singers performed from within the audience.

New music festivals don’t usually make explicit political statements. But perhaps they are able to make playful suggestions? It seems like they are suggesting: A musical work could be something completely different. The audience could participate in the music completely differently. And as Alwynne said: Everything in our society could be completely different.

As the opening concert of Borealis was at BAS, it brought me to think of the composer’s role in the planning of public spaces as an important one. Just like architecture affects everyone’s perception of the forms and structures of our society, so do the soundscapes.

However, there are conservative attitudes in the field of composition, which prohibit us from making the relationship between music and society a relevant subject. Thinking of a “musical work” as something historical, not given, raises complex issues which might be easier just to ignore. Composing is difficult enough. Plus, we already have structures that support the traditional idea of a “musical work”: concert halls and orchestras, supported by institutions with deep historical roots. Why should we think of the composer as something else than a romantic expressionist, writing symphonies for entertainment or expression of feelings?

Some years ago I read R. Murray Schafer’s book The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. After this, there was no way back to musical conservatism for me. Schafer shows how not only landscapes, but soundscapes, too, have a deep effect on the society. Sound is often forgotten, because it is fleeting, it doesn’t leave apparent marks. Also, it is difficult to do historical research on soundscapes of the times before the recorder. According to Schafer every natural soundscape has its own unique tones and often these are so original as to constitute soundmarks. They form soundmarks in the culture. He also writes of the shattered soundscapes in the noisy cities of the modern world. The sounds don’t carry ”meanings” in the same way anymore, as common anchorpoints for the people participating in the society. (Don’t quote me on this without checking the source, I only mention it in the way I remember it).

Hardly anyone seems to carry responsibility for the common sphares of sound. The space is just there for anyone to pollute. Shcafer writes: ”Car horns are another example of a sonic absolute bequathed anonymously to the world by an inventor who took few music lessons.” This statement makes the opening of Borealis interesting: the aesthetization of such terrible noise.

It is not enough to involve the experts of sound engineering and acoustics in the decision making when it comes to planning buildings and city areas. The complexity of the field of composition, the “lingering reflection”, should be involved, too.

Perhaps Schafer should be read in parallell with John Cage? Cage asks over and over again, both through his compositional work and writing, the question: What is a musical work? Or, what could a musical work be? Cage’s fondness of silence, his critique of modern ways of listening, could be discussed in the context of soundscapes and architecture.

Everything could be completely different.

I wish the following could happen: As I walk down along the mountain side to the city of Bergen, an expressive oboe sound would emerge from behind a stone wall. It would not play any national romantic troll dance to the delightment of the bypassing tourists. It would not play to entertain, with some nostalgic melody, making the bypassing people recognize it: “Oh yes, that one!”, neither classical nor popular music. Rather, the oboe would play in a way which brings us to the threshold of uncertainty. Its playing could perform as a ritual of the “unknown”. The Chaos. The music should ask: what is it that you’re doing? What am I (the music) doing?

I should feel free to join the ritual and start singing, too. I would sing my walking (notice the lack of preposition), sing my morning, day and night, and I would encounter the oboe sound in an honest and intimate way. I would not sing with the aim of sounding “beautiful”.

As a final comment, whenever I hear the expression “aesthetic experience in everyday life” I get suspicious. Not because I think art belongs to the museums and concert halls, as artifacts. On the contrary, music, just like architecture, could be integrated in our everyday world to a much greater degree. But the “aesthetic experience” sounds as something additional to ordinary experience, or a very specific attitude to the surrounding world. It makes everyday life appear as “dull”. Why is it even called an experience? What would a non-experience be? Or a non-aesthetic experience?

The ways in which the participation in the surrounding soundscapes happens, I would much rather think of as an activity, creating rituals in our everyday lives (not routines). Just saying “hello” in specific ways to someone we know, is a ritual. Rituals form our society. And they could be completely different.

The danger is in that our living forms and the ideas we possess start to perform like fundamental truths. It is the “world of ideas” that is the dull everyday-world, not the “concrete” world. The question is not how to experience the world more aesthetically, but how to form a culture which respects the uncertainty, the silence. Which creates space for listening, not just hearing. And which supports us in fully participating.

Borealis: Space Is the Place
BAS, Bergen, 10th March 2016

A fanfare by Anthony Braxton; Sjøforsvarets musikkorps
Work for car horns; Ensemble Pamplemousse
A composition by Johannes Lund; Sjøforsvarets musikkorps
A composition by Guro Skumsnes Moe; Ensemble Avgarde
A composition by Jessie Marino; for snare drums, light and electronics
“Verk for en tom silo” by John Chantler; silo, electronics, organs and the resonances of the room
(I didn’t find the exact titles in the concert program or on the web page.)