FMQ Spring 2016 Notes & Letters: Borderline sounds
“Music is sounds, sounds around us whether we’re in or out of concert halls: cf. Thoreau.” Thus responded John Cage in the 1960s when R. Murray Schafer asked him for a definition of music. This idea has been slow to take root in Finland, where the mainstream in classical music consists of the modernist tradition, with a strong academic streak. Fortunately, this is now slowly changing.
“It may be that he will not like all the tunes of this new music, and that too will be good,” Schafer said. Any new departures and new ways of looking at art prompt controversy. Cage’s idea, however, was to allow people to hear all sounds as being equal. What is important is understanding the difference between hearing and listening. A listener can be an active recipient of sound in any context. Sound is vibrations. It is a physical phenomenon in invisible matter that cannot be grasped but can touch the listener.
Interesting things happen in the borderlands between music and sound art. Sub-genres of electronic music, field recordings, studies in improvisation and graphic notation and sound installations continue to open up new pathways for musicians in all genres. There are always conflicts, but the heat generated by friction generates energy, and energy propels movement towards new results, hopefully. “Without deviation from the norm progress is not possible,” said Frank Zappa once upon a time.
To me, energy implies intensity. The two concepts are related and are often found in the same contexts.
Yet both are imprecise: intensity might not mean anything concrete that is measurable, but when it exists, it gives a reason for many artworks. That is why it is one of the most important parts of music, and it is found in all music regardless of genre. Music must, almost by definition, contain an absurd and surreal power.
In my work as a composer, I aim to approach sound as diversely as possible and without prejudice. Instrumentation affects what the sound world of the piece will be like; it is good to have restrictions. In the case of, say, a work for a solo instrument, the soundscape is largely pre-determined. I like to explore sounds rather than harmony, melody or form. Those are secondary features that are derived from the phenomenon of sound. That is not to say that they are unimportant, though.
As an electronics programmer, I am interested in bugs and errors. Such surprising occurrences often take one’s thoughts in unintended directions. One must get lost in order to find. A good example of this is my piece Feed, recorded on the debut album of defunensemble, define function, last year. The tape part is almost completely coloured by the aesthetic of errors. The author Cesar Aira once wrote of his own work: “My style is irregular, sloppy, spasmodic, joking.” Well said!
As artistic director of the Tampere Biennale, I wanted to bring in various aspects of sound art today, whether concert music, alternative rock, sound installations or the unpredictable but utterly familiar soundscape of the urban space. When you add surprising, incongruous sounds to a cityscape, the experience of space and sound may change completely. I am hoping that people will be confused, in a positive way, in Tampere this spring. And even those local people who never go to Tampere Biennale concerts (yes, there are such people!) will have an opportunity to be exposed to sound art.
The festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary yet has very little in it that could be described as retrospective. There are several premieres. The concerts will feature both traditional and very untraditional instruments, from balloons through a box-spring mattress to the good old piano. Some pianos will be destroyed, I’m afraid. But even that can be done in so many ways!
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Photo: Juha Nenonen
More about defunensemble here.
Tampere Biennale was named the Festival of the Year 2018 by Finland Festivals, a non-profit organisation representing Finnish cultural events. The next Tampere Biennale will be take place from 11 to 15 April 2018.