Appeared on Frakcija Magazine #53/54, “Process:Music”. Curated by Ksenja Stefanovic.
AGD : After listening to “Campanas” and reading your text. What is “beyond the realist´s depiction of a landscape”? The emergence of a voice. But could the “voice of a place” – which must be something else than an accumulation of sounds and noises, and also something else than the sound of your voice repeating a word or a syllable – make itself heard if disappearing did not belong to the landscape, or the place? What exactly do you call a voice, then?
AB : Your first question already pushes me to the corner since I realize how much I don’t know what a voice really is. Touché.
I should since I mainly work with what common language defines as “voices”. I most of the time focus on so called spoken language. Supposedly I should know what a voice is. In fact, you make me realize I don’t.
We could simplify saying that the voice is articulated sound coming out of the mouth of human beings. Unfortunately things are not that easy.
For instance we say : “the voice of the sea” “the voice of a stradivari violin” “the voice of a community”. We sometimes even refer to the voices of objects or the voices of the dead.
Those are just figures of speech though, usually, language may reveal that something is going on on a deeper level.
Everything could be a voice. Or better everything could turn into being a voice.
I am more and more tempted to think that the distinction between what is voice and what is the world – as is to say the rest of things sonorous – just happens inside the realm of perception.
It is well known to sound engineers how human voices tend to be perceived as much louder that the rest, in mixing together different recorded sounds and noises.
The voice sticks out. So we have a little attempt of a definition : the voce as something that sticks out since if it sticks out it must be a voice.
In sound- and radio-art there is somehow a border between projects dealing with “voice” and projects dealing with the “soundscape” that is sort of given for granted. Not that anybody would ask you the pass while crossing but things tend to dispose themselves on either one or the other side of it.
A few years ago a sound art compilation digging in the amazing archives of the Studio Akustische Kunst of WDR had been released by the german label Wergo in two cds significatively dedicated to “voicings” and “phonographers”. What made that distinction so evident ? There seems to be a polarization corresponding to two different ways of listening. Even in this case I don’t think things can be dealt with so easily.
More and more listeners seem to be fascinated by a so called “ambient” way of listening. Immersive listening, diving in what David Toop has successfully named “ocean of sound”. Listeners look out for a “groove” rather than a “text”, they perceive a phrasing “instead” of distinct “words”. They look out for an environment rather than a voice in their listening habits. They see themselves like inhabitants rather than receivers of a sound artifact.
If we go past the definition of voice as articulated sound coming out of the human mouth and accept that a voice could crystallize out of many other materials (voice of planets, of thoughts, of nature, of cultures, of landscapes) we’ll see that there is a certain moment when something coalesces out of a certain matter or a certain environment to let the so called voice emerge.
Something sticks out. Something starts “telling”. Something gets a “profile”. We start “reading” the sound and not just bathing in it. We initiate a double sided process of selection. Something in the sound environment tells us there is a voice to be listened to and we feel compelled to filter out all the rest. There is even something desperate in the compulsory need of human beings to read messages out from abstract patterns. Deciphering even where there is nothing to be deciphered, hear voices from the ades or from the silence of the mind.
I have to think of a visual analogy : we all know what happens when we squeeze our eyes to blur out the visual field. Now think of something that is infact impossible : What if, while squeezing the eyes, an object would keep its sharp appearance while all the rest is blurred out ? I know we cant , we may have to install some sort of photoshop software on our retina. But, what if… For example we squeeze our eyes in front of our kitchen sink but there is an obstinate dirty dish that keeps looking perfectly sharp while everything else disappears into a blurry mass.
Could we say that the sonorous analogy of that dirty dish is a “voice” ?
So another definition attempt could be : a voice is a sticking out, ever-sharp, contrasted, willful and somehow agitated object appearing in our field of perception.
AGD : A voice sticks out, yes. And I agree: everything can become a voice, though not everybody does have a voice. Somehow the voice emerges there where the body seems to burn away, as if a voice were strangely disembodied or as if it were the voice of the dead, not by chance but by definition! The dead have a voice, not the living, or perhaps the voice makes itself heard on a threshold, between life and death, there where it is neither a matter of life nor of death; that’s why I insisted on the disappearance of the landscape. A voice still rings in my ears when the other has vanished, when he is absent, when he is no longer there, though it does not do so forever. In literature or in philosophy, I would say that a voice is not simply a vehicle transmitting a message but that the message it transmits remains strangely inseparable from the way the voice speaks or sings. It is this unity that makes the mystery of the voice.
AB : Only sure thing to me is that they become voices in our bodies as to say in our perception.
As for with electromagnetic waves, we detect a signal that seems to have a certain periodicity, that seems to carry significance and we tune in filtering all the rest away. Is just us deciding it.
As much as a voice is outside of the “transmitter” it is inside the “receiver”. The landscape disappears because, if voices exist somehow in that liminal crevice between bodies how could we be really sure that they came from other bodies and not from us of from some other place ?
One of the big revealed truth in radio making is that the voice, the disembodied voice, although disembodied, should reveal a body. There is a somehow commonly accepted dogma about the way a voice has to be recorded for radio broadcasting and this should happen in a so called “shalltotraum” or something as close as possible to it. A room with almost none or no acoustic reflection in it. The landscape is not hearable not even through resonance and the effect is that of a voice that resonates in your head (or in your body). The first reason given as a justification for this practice is that it makes the voice more “understandable”, the second is a matter of intimacy. We dress up with the body of the speaker. We fit it onto us.
This has something to do with being dead. Or simply pretending of being dead like some animals do. Hiding under a corpse. It is naturally very passive. We are “spoken” by a voice that comes from elsewhere but disguises itself as “our voice”.
I have to think of why in many of my pieces I am so obsessed by dubbing, speaking in unisono with other voices. I always try to speak along with them. Never to succumb to the illusion that this is me. “Me” is “me” and “them” is “them”, there should be two hearable voices there at the same time to save me from confusion. One is the corpse and the other is me.
The ideal situation would be that of having a time machine allowing us to know in advance everything that will be said in the future. If, for example, we are invited to a dinner we will already know every single word that it will be spoken at the table. We could then learn it by heart and speak it in unisono with the others. We will speak our part and then all other parts as well.
This reminds me a beautiful piece by artist Ulla Von Brandenburg – previously unknown to me – i just saw at the Venice Biennale. Among several other very interesting features, it was portraying a group of people having a conversation around a table. All their voices had been substituted, in lip-synch by the singing voice of the artist. They were all sharing the same voice, so to say.
You say that “the voice emerges there where the body seems to burn away” and i can add to it that the voice, needing landscapes and bodies to live in, has a parasitical life after fleeing from the burning cities they were born in. It is sometimes very sad, it has a lot to do with longing and sensucht.
There is actually a lot of this feeling in “Arcoparlante” and it is something that struck me unexpectedly. I wasn’t aware of that while conceiving the piece’s idea but then i had to deal with all those voices needing for a home. And what was even more difficult to deal with was that the narratives that they were taking along were also needing for a home. It was like they very saying to me : “dont you remember ? you lived this situation ! dont you remember ? this is you telling this story !” but it wasn’t me. Memories without a master of events nobody had lived. I was just the re-collector. The caretaker. I was putting the pieces together, that’s all. And i was sad for the burned away bodies and landscapes, of course, but mostly sad for the awareness of not have been there, of have never “experienced” those moments. And probably i was sad because this made me think of how i could not have been sure even of my own memories. The only safe thing being the present, all the rest just a representation or an illusion, or just a whisper, a voice, as a matter of fact.
Another piece I have to think about was a radio-play from french author Yannis Paranthoen – I forgot the title – where he recorded several craftsmen while working silently. He sat with them, behind or beside them with his microphone. Then he replayed the recordings to them over headphones and had them describe what they were doing. Just at the end, in the studio, he put the two recordings together. I would love to hear what Paranthoen may say about this.
AGD : Having just rearead your last message and having just listened to the first twenty minutes of “Arcoparlante”, let me say how impressed I am by all the different examples you give in your extensive answers. I call them “examples” for lack of a better word, for I am very much aware of the inaptness of the term. They are not just examples, they are your voice’s bodies. Now, if, at the risk of saying something smart and being hit in the mouth, I try to reduce these examples and your comments to an idea, I would claim that, for a voice to emerge, a certain disembodiment is required, “a room with almost no acoustic reflection in it”, as you put it, so that whoever listens to a voice is tempted to attribute a body to it, a bodily volume: the more disembodied, the more the voice offers itself to a body, the more it latches onto bodies, or the more it becomes the body’s parasite. A voice cannot exist without a body; but it cannot exist with a body either, the body is its home and its exile, and this means that it finds itself on a threshold, as we have already understood. If we managed to speak in one voice, for you an almost utopian perspective, would there still be a voice? And what does it mean for the voice that there is always one who cannot listen to it, for whom the voice has always already disappeared and will never be back, one who is left without a body, a home, namely the one who speaks, the one who has a voice that comes to him and goes out to others? You can record my voice, you can manipulate it technically, you can make me listen to it endless times in endless variations and transformations, but, sadly, I will never be in a position to hear anything… I have a voice only to the extent that I must remain oblivious to it.
AB : I could not agree more and still I think that there is something blurry in your metaphors. There are bodies and there are not bodies. Voices speak in/out/for real people and though could also just speak in the void. There is a big responsibility in voices since they convey (they may convey) messages. If we are to agree, find a way to live together, stipulate a piece treaty, negotiate instances of tolerance etc. we may have to do it through the voice. But as we found out here there are different type of voices, voices of dead and voices of living, voices with a body and voices with no body, voices fitting to one or more bodies and voices fitting to none. There are even voices of zombies and robots.
And now I have to think of Italy, my country i left ten years ago.
It comes to my mind an article appeared on december 2007 on the New York Times, by Ian Fisher “in a funk, italy sings an aria of disappointment“. It was so far the best description i’ve read of the “malaise” that is entrapping the “voice” land.
It wasn’t the usual interpretation based on the political struggle between the left and the right or some other polarized depiction of a conflict. It was rather an assumption of a deeply rooted difficulty to “tell” that generate depression and stasis.
That article resonated with to my complicated relationship with opera and bel canto – i am so disaffected with that I choose to focus my voice work on the musicality of spoken language almost completely skipping the singing practice.
Isn’t bel canto that voice that you “can make me listen to it endless times in endless variations and transformations, but, sadly, I will never be in a position to hear anything” ? Isnt it just a well profiled but useless robotic whistle sticking out from an indistinct mass of grunts and groans ? Barely uttered by a mob of zombies pretending to speak all at a time and simply generating a texture, a fog of electrostatic noise where is impossible to tune on any specific station ? ( I must always think of Kafka’s Josephine ! ). When fisher wrote that harmelss article he’s been namely teared apart by the aforementioned mob of zombies, he’s voices submerged into the grunts and the static to a point of complete annihilation.
In a contry that has no voice, and probably no body anymore ( “an exquisite corpse trampled over by tourists” ie. fisher ) just a piercing voice sticks out, a voice with no body, aiming for no body, just stating the empty self referentiality of “beauty” and “feelings”.
AGD : I am not sure that I can follow you, or that I want to do so, when you reduce bel canto, and perhaps even opera in general, to some kind of ideology: as if beauty and emotion, the beautiful and emotional voice, were in themselves ideological concepts, as if the infinity of singing were the same as the endlessness of chatter, as if the Italian origins of such singing and such chatter were identical and therefore made both into the same kind of phenomenon, as if the fact that in bel canto it is often irrelevant to understand the words meant that there is no intelligible message and therefore nothing of interest to which we should listen! Perhaps the task, or, if you prefer, the “responsibility” of the artist would be to open up the abyss there were, on the surface, self-referentiality appears to be nothing except self-referentially self-referential. Yesterday, I happened to be reading once again the pages in “Aesthetic Theory” where Adorno talks about the enigmatic character of art, about the fact that art says something without saying it, and where he also claims that all the elements needed for things to be different are there, in the real world; only a minimal shifing or displacing would be required to bring about a change.
But tell me, do you – as an artist – “talk about something interesting”? And if so, how do you do it?
AB : I think that belcanto is ideologic but i can’t go further on that because, as you see, it took me so long to answer this question. I did some plane hopping and went to baltimore and nyc to do the recordings i had to do for this WDR children radio project and then to baltimore again. I thought, i should reply to your question but i didn’t and I ate crabs and burgers and i even gained some weight. And i thought that i had to answer something thoughtful since i am having this mail conversation with a philosopher but the truth is that as soon as they start singing i cant think anymore. I see this ideology blowing towards me like a wind and then i lose consciousness. Sometimes i wake up inside an episode of the sopranos, the tv series, its like a nightmare. So i deliberately fall asleep again by mean of stilnox and banging my head on the wall and then i wake up in a swamp. That is in fact, italy. Some say : Mussolini merit was to clean up swamps. But this was a mistake too. He would have kept the real symbol of what Italy is : a swamp. A gigantic land-art monument to this muddy country. He should have transformed the swamps in some Borgesque place, surrounding them with pseudo roman walls, arcs and statues. You could have entered this land of the dead by boat, going through the arcs into a thick fog. You would have caught malaria and entered a feverish limbo between life and death. How beautiful this all could have been ! Am i talking about something interesting ? Really, I don’t know. Most of the time I am asleep. You said it about my performance in Zagreb. Lethargic. So its what it is, most of the times i am asleep. I am engaged in a series of works where i am asleep. Like sleeping under a beehive while recording it, or sleeping amidst safary horn trophies, or being asleep in a bathtub. Last year it was in a motel in Baltimore, being half asleep in this bed, in this super cheap dirty motel, having a microphone and blubbering my thoughts, my asleep utterances from below the sheets. I had a really fancy chinese silk pajama. It was organized by a performance festival wanting to place art in public spaces. There were those black ladies from the motel, probably hookers, having fun with the performance and jumping on the bed along with some baltimore young hipsters. So as you see the best stuff happens to me while I sleep. Actually, talking of beehives – the beehive, again – i now realize how awake those bees are in contrast to my lethargic state.
The texture sings more that the individuals, all is mashing, all is blending. As far as me, I endlessly chatter and blabber and stutter. I am also an hemigloit, speaking several languages all badly according to my friend Sean Shanahan’s definition. Nobody really cares for the italian language, i mean in literature and poetry and so on. So i have to speak those other languages. And i decided that they belong to me as much as i can understand them. So i don’t feel colonized because its me that colonizes them. But this is another story. And I should follow Adorno’s suggestion and shut up and just do whatever i am doing. Which is made up with this utterances, mine and other’s and as you see its a circle because i would like to shut up but i can’t shut up because language is at the center of my work. Language blurs but how can you discard language ? How could fuck up something so pretty and useful ?
AGD : “Most of the time I am asleep”, you write. I love that. And I also love seeing you asleep under a beehive, Alessandro the spirit of the beehive. And then half asleep in the cheap motel room, with the black hookers and the hipsters making a lot of noise, noise that nourishes your sleep rather than disturbing it. It’s silly, mildly sexual, stupid and innocent, a soothing druggy confusion of childhood and so-called maturity, a modern lullaby. Years ago I bought a CD with a recital of classical music dedicated to a “theme”. Such recitals were fashionable amongst young and somewhat intelligent singers. This one was all about sleep. The American soprano Dawn Upshaw singing Haendel, Monteverdi and others, each piece a piece on sleep and its effects, though it was not a collection of lullabies. Don’t you love that word? Perhaps being half asleep is one of the most mysterious mental and bodily states, a state that has its place on a threshold, a way of being that is not simply a way of being anymore. To me it’s similar to the eternity upon which you touch at the limit of exhaustion: you think that you are worn out, too tired to go on, you just want to get some refreshing sleep, and suddenly you feel that there is nothing you cannot do, that nothing can stop you, that you can continue forever; not because you feel energetic once again but because you have overcome tiredness within tiredness, so to speak. This holds true of language, too: is there not a chatter that starts there where you cannot think of anything to say and where you still keep talking, or begin to talk yet again, as if you had been blessed with language?
AB : Oh, yes yes yes. It is so true ! And it could be because you are drunk but also not. And can just start flowing out of your mouth like a river. Its a blessing and yet, sorry if i sound new age now, it shows how many constrains we have. Once we deeply feel free there is so much stuff that pours out, our brains are much more powerful than we expected. But most of the times something obliges us to hold our horses.
And lullaby, what an amazing word ! You make me think of it, i never thought of it. And I would like to ear that record ahah. ( I always change my mind ). Is there a philosophical category for opinions/ideas that are unstable and oscillate super swiftly between agreeing and disagreeing, 1 and -1 so to say, like electrons ? Being asleep and at the same time trying to say something interesting. And at the same time being (supposedly) a musician, grown up on the somehow stravisnkian (and maybe adornian ) assumption that music speaks for itself, it has its won specificity, like art in general, it does not need subtitles, programs, speech balloons. And here i go with all those subtexts, speech balloons, allusions, andeutungen. Because in fact I always try to speak about something. Not that it is easy, i am not so “blessed” as to be able to speak always about something. Most of the time i tend to comment on, criticize, indicize and refer to and, as most of us do. While doing it i forgot the object. I forgot about what i am talking about. (ok ok , i know its always about me/us but you gotta dissimulate a bit ). And this obsession with the aboutness is supposedly not so good for a musician. You are supposed to be loyal to sound. To this time based (read “time consuming”, your time, my time) form of expression. But I have a problem with sound. I cant take too much of it. I love and hate it. Maybe because i know its time consuming and i know i am going to die and i don’t want to waste time. When i dream i rarely dream sound. Some composers recount of amazing acoustic dreams they had. I am envious. Never had such dreams. But anyway i keep saying i am a musician since it’s there were i have more chances to be takes seriously. And I try to talk about something. And thats the point. How do you do it ? Where is the difference ? You (me) are talking all the time but at some point you (me) are saying something and some other times you (me) are not. Where is the trick ? I tried having themes. And since i wanted to do important work i looked up for important themes : translation, identity, italian colonial past, endangered languages, stuff like that. So i got all this important themes. And I am still stuck with those. I am serious about them. But i realize they are also far too big for me. And I grow envious for other artists that pic far less “important” themes, you can talk about the thumb, the noodles, the egg, just that easy. And some of the best work is just like that. I was just watching some pictures of Martin Kippenberger’s egg works. Well, he’s definitely talking about something. Don’t know if this is something important or not. It definitely sounds interesting to me. And so i built this machine, mask/mirror that is just supposed to bring up stuff to be talked about. And it could be pretty interesting. And it could be just about the aboutness of being about as somebody said. And sometimes it can be very boring. And it does not solve the problem of how do you make music with it. And the experimental music scene does not really help since the feeling is that it is stuck to where visual art was in the sixties, rothko, ed reinhardt and all that. Its different with rock, there is maybe more risk there but its also not my koine and now i am maybe too old for it. And so Mask/Mirror it is an attempt to get out of those big themes by picking something random. After all most of our interactions with fellow humans are about random themes. So for now I have been experimenting with that. The name Mask/Mirror, again is such a big theme-name. Its kind of boring ! I should have called it “Comb/Pinch” or “Dog/Clam” since its supposedly about everything.
And the next attempt could be sleep. I like the way you describe being half asleep. It does not apply to me necessarily. I am deeply frightened by that state. Its often the place were my head starts spinning and i cant stop making lists. I cant get out of it. I have ideas over ideas of things to do and if i have to make sense of what i wrote before : i am not thinking of anything, i am just commenting on, criticize, indicize and referring to.
Still, it happens to me in the summer sometimes that i can reach what you are talking about. Its somehow associated with the summer and with some breeze moved curtains. This is very pleasant.
But as soon as i fall asleep then dreams come and dreams are always about something interesting. In dreams there are no lists, no theories, no comments and as far as i am concerned, no reference to anything that matters. But there is always something interesting, something that exists and that happens. Using dreams for art purposes is dangerous and possibly very boring. But dreams are always interesting for the person dreaming them. Its some kind of pure life. Does it sounds interesting or i am just talking some hippie shit ?