air: acoustic match / mp3 / 01:01
I was recently invited to take part in Elemental Dialogues: air, an interdisciplinary research project by the artist filmmakers, Anna Cady and Pauline Thomas. The project involves artists from an array of disciplines, writers, musicians, poets and dancers, all of who were invited to create their own ‘interpretation’ of the short film Air by Cady & Thomas. The resulting interpretations would then be ‘re-embedded into the film’, creating new, pluridisciplinary artworks, each of which tells a different and sometimes radically unexpected story’. It seems inherent to the project that the contributors interpret not only the film, but also the meaning of interpretation.
Perhaps because of my use of field-recording and an educational diet of 1970’s conceptual art and avant-garde film, I have an inherent suspicion of interpretation. As a word it suggests a concern with the subjective and considered. In her essay Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag describes interpretation as “a conscious act of the mind [illustrating] a certain code”. This description is augmented by the Oxford English Dictionary, whose definition combines the austerity of ‘explaining’, ‘understanding’ and ‘defining’ with the superficiality of ‘stylistic representation’.
Whilst field-recording I attempt to be as transparent as possible in order to let the sound through, allowing the unrecorded present to become a recorded past with as little interference (or interpretation) as possible: in the words of John Cage: ‘let sounds be themselves’. I am of course aware that Cage was not a fan of recorded sound (see David Grubbs book, Records Ruin the landscape) and I accept that the fluff of my blimp and bent of my microphone will find and amplify certain noises, whilst excluding others, thereby interfering with the sound recorded. But an inclination toward absence remains, whilst in my practice I accept and often celebrate the flaw, blemish and failure inherent in the act of recording.
air: wire wool and battery / mp3 / 01:10
dialogue with air: composed interpretation / mp3 / 03:56
For my contribution to the project I wanted a dialogue with ‘air’ that would avoid subjective, analytical, or emotional ‘responses’, preferring an ‘interpretation’ focused upon the sensual and temporal qualities of the film. I was drawn to the ephemerality of the imagery, and began listening for moments of air when its presence drifts between the audible and silent. I was interested in listening for these temporal qualities, more than the sonic consequence of its visibility: such as the rustle of leaves in a breeze. I began exploring chemical reactions that required air to occur, moments where air is used up and sound goes out. These field-recordings included the flameless chemistry of wire wool kindled by electricity and the designed illumination of a match struck gently.
I used these recordings to ‘compose’ a soundscape in retrospect: it was important not to watch the film whilst recording or composing, to look away in order to allow the sensual and temporal qualities to be filtered through my memory. This also helped me to avoid the temptation to synchronise sound to imagery, although a simple graphic score was created, to map the geography of the composition. I also used the fixed length of the film to set the duration of composition. Subsequently, it occurred to me that this almost intuitive inclination to synchronisation created a restriction that would be neither required nor applied to an interpretation in words or drawing. It seemed more appropriate to interpret the film holistically rather than breaking it up into a code of synchronised fragments.
air struck gently (away from the body) / mp3 / 05:05
Listening to the soundscape and the original field-recordings I found the austere narrative of a match struck, was the most transparent and eloquent interpretation of the film. The temporality of each match was innate, unique and complete, whilst in the composed soundscape time was fragmented. I concluded that the interpretation should preference performance to re-composition, allowing the unique sound of each match to occur and disappear like a breath, unformed by the voice of aesthetic decisions.
I found the stillness and temporal shifts in the film, reminiscent of Yoko Ono’s Flux Film No. 14: One (1966), in which the muted strike of a match is filmed at 2000fr/sec, extending and pausing the moment of illumination. Free of a prescribed duration, I applied this process to one of the match recordings, prolonging and amplifying the sonic details of its narrative, from the rush of chemical ignition to the gaseous cackle of flame and the final intermittent creek of exhalation as the match curls up in the silent darkness of light and air exhausted: ‘Then there begins a silence that breathes’ (Gaston Bachelard)
 The safety instruction on boxes of Swan Vesta matches advises the user to: ‘Strike gently away from the body’.
An ‘exploration’ of the interpretations by artists, writers and dancers have been ’embedded’ in a site-specific collaboration at The Manor, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire next weekend. More details here: https://talkthinkmake.wordpress.com/book/
Another collaboration will take place in London on the 7th May.