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Darrin Verhagen perceives The Sound Barrier!

The Sound Barrier : Blog

It can sometimes be easy to forget just how far (or perhaps more to the point how widely) music has progressed. It's not just that musicians and composers have learned new ways of making sound, or new approaches to tonality and form, but a growing curiosity about how we create music, about how we form it, and about what it connects to us, along with expanding means to satisfy that curiosity, has itself changed how music is made and heard.

It is a curiosity that enables musicians to take the art to very new places, to work beyond the limits that even an adventurous musical mind can be restricted to when music is thought of only as something that is built out of the interplay of themes, and only as something to be heard.

Next weekend in Melbourne, Process: A Sonic Forum is going to provide an opportunity for its participants to explore musical creativity in these more expanded ways – to explore how music works across the senses, across media, across technologies.

Heading the forum will be Melbourne composer, trans-media and trans-sensory artist and researcher, Darrin Verhagen, who joined me as my studio guest on the latest edition of The Sound Barrier.

As well as listening to some of Darrin's music, we had a long and pretty amazing chat about some of the issues that he will be touching on next at Process, and that has fascinated him so deeply as a sound designer and researcher. Part of this revolved around the whole phenomenon of music for film, theatre, and dance and the ways in which music can work actively in those media to evoke or underscore our emotions. Often those associations are a complex mix of our own personal history and of what composers themselves teach us throughout the performance -
the associations and meanings they conjure up for us with their music. But Darrin also took that discussion beyond just these associations and into the broader sphere of the interactions between sound and our other senses – the ways in which movement, and tactile sensation, and sight, can all be distorted or enhanced by the juxtapositions and connections with sound, which the artist, and then ultimately our own bodies and minds, form between them.

Darrin's work reminds us that we are in a sense always experiencing things in a multi-sensory, multi-media context. It is rare for any of our senses to shut off completely, and rare for any media to engage us exclusively. Darrin's research and practice explore how those connections can be played with and how a consciousness of them from the artist can manipulate a totality of them in the audience. But the fun of the discovery is at the core of finding its possibilities, Darrin says, and when he works with his students he encourages them to be like children in the sandpit: don't wait to be told what to find, just dig.

When we think about music, and the ways music connects, in these more creative ways, then a whole lot of more interesting ways to create it begin to emerge. Darrin's interest in inter-sensory relationships is one of these, but it reflects a fascination with how music functions that can steer down other paths too.

Like the brainwaves of David Rosenboom.

David Rosenboom's Chilean Drought, from 1974, is one of a number of pieces that he was composing around those years connecting music to human brainwaves via electrodes attached to a human's scalp, from which the electroencephalogram would be gated into three channels of recorded sound, varying the voltage of the input as the person's thoughts and thought-waves fluctuate throughout the piece. The three channels inputting into the recorded material each correspond to different bands of electromagnetic brain activity, believed to each represent different levels of active, abstracted thought. As the human subject listens to the changes in the recorded channels as his or her thoughts, and their pace, change then this creates something of a feedback loop that always shapes the music in different ways, every time it is performed, and from everyone who performs it.

In the case of Chilean Drought the recorded material mixed and changed by the gating of the brainwaves are texts about the Chilean landscape, and environmental assault on it by the extended drought that was taking place there when the piece was composed. It creates, then, an emotional dimension to the sound and to the brain activity which in turn then impacts on the voltages emitting from the brainwaves.

Against all of this, a piano performs alongside the tapes – frantically rapid figures somewhat in the vein of La Monte Young, with whom Rosenboom had performed as part of the Theatre of Eternal Music. The piano part is not directly shaped by the brainwaves and, while it is fully notated, its speed will inevitably form a kind of rhythmic alliance with the rapid speech of the taped material, controlled by the brainwaves which are themselves, of course, responding to both the tapes and the piano. The whole piece emerges as a huge, dynamic interplay between words, piano, and brain, each evoking their own sense, their own sensibility, and their own sound, all in a huge dynamic loop.

Feedback of a much different, rather more abstract, sort plays out in Jeux Imaginaires, composed in 1993 by Swedish composer Åke Parmerud. The composer describes the piece as 'a fantasy on time and strategies as found in a famous game of chess (Karpov vs Kasparov, 22nd round, 1992 World Championships).' But the piece depicts the game itself only very briefly in one section where the proportions between the moves in part of the game are translated into the rhythmic proportions in the percussion. For the rest of the piece the connection with the game is more removed. The composer would typically end his day by playing over some of the moves of the game, mostly as a way of unwinding and meditating after the day's work in sound studio. But he began to see in the strategies and moves of the chess game a resonance with the structures and forms of music: the ways in which the shapes of the pieces began to act as metaphors for the architecture of sound, for the ways in which different components would draw on the strengths of others and, in the process, form themselves into new relationships that would work with and against each other.

In this way, then, music begins to be perceived through different senses – through imaginations of shapes and movement – and emerges as a new process: not one where the music is developed thematically but formally and tactically instead. So, ultimately, the music engaged with different senses, different thought processes, and emerged as something entirely different because of this.

For Karlheinz Stockhausen, the notion of music as process and perception took on many different forms, such as the so-called "intuitive" works where text-based scores would describe a process in a very abstracted way, and the musicians would connect with each other, the score, and the audience, intuitively, to realise those instructions; or a work such as YLEM, where the performers musically and spatially replicate the expansions and contraction of the universe, as a conductor directs proceedings while sitting motionless in the centre of the auditorium, communicating to the musicians telepathically.

But in his 'process' works were different again. These works set out the overall process of the composition through systems of signs, especially 'plus' and 'minus' signs, but the pitches, durations, dynamics, and timbres of the sounds were decided by the performer, usually on the basis of sound events that they would pick up, in real time, from short-wave radio receivers that they operated along with their instruments or voices. The score's signs would guide how those sound events, initially derived from the short-wave radios, would be 'imitated, transformed, and transcended', as Stockhausen introduced the overall process in the preface to his score SPIRAL (1968), where each sign would be applied to different parameters, according to the choices the performer made. They are works, then, that accentuate the composer as the person who determines process, while the performer determines content.

EXPO applies these ideas to an ensemble of three musicians – any trio of instrumentalists and/or vocalists, each with their own short-wave radio – and was composed for the 1970 World Fair Expo in Osaka Japan. By involving three musicians, unlike the soloist used for SPIRAL, EXPO builds interactions between the players into its system of signs, rather than these being entirely between the musician and the radio. This builds up a complex system of actions, reactions, and interactions between musicians and radios. Ultimately, then, the music is shaped according to connection and perception of the sounds that people and things create amongst one another.

The role of short-wave radios in this interested Stockhausen in two ways: he was intrigued by the sounds themselves, especially as stations came in and out of tune, or as unusual sounds such as Morse Code intermingled with music and news broadcasts; but he also had a notion of humans being themselves radio receivers – receptacles for the vibrations and energies of the cosmos and so, in this sense, the process of perceiving them and interacting with them musically was like a metaphor for humans connect with the universe. We might not be able to determine its content, a piece like EXPO seems to say, but we can become active participants in how it shapes us, and in how we shape it.

Whether it be the trans-sensory explorations of Darrin Verhagen, the connections with brainwave feedback of David Rosenboom, the reconceptualising of music through connecting it with abstract architecture and strategy as Åke Parmerud did, or the re-forming of musical process by using the relationships between musicians and short-wave transmissions as the source for generating the raw material of a piece, or whether it be any of many other things besides, there is a kaleidoscope of ways in which music can find its genesis and then grow outwards from it.

Maybe musicians always explored these to a degree. Maybe they have always connected with new things in finding inspiration for what they create and where they take it. But as technology, and thought about how music relates to the world, all become more energetically explored and discussed, and as the means available to musicians to draw from and work with as they engage in those discussions increase, then the possibilities for how we grow music and grow our experience of it, increases too. As long as we have imaginations, we have something to connect music to.

This is why forums such as Process: A Sonic Forum are so important: not so much because of the things they help us to discover, but because of the stories of discovery they help us to share, of the enthusiasm for discovery that they engender. So, more than giving the person a fish, more than teaching the person how to fish, they begin to teach the person how to navigate, and how to find the seas where no one has yet fished at all.

Remember you can listen back or check out the playlist for last night's show, right here on the website. The audio will be up there for about six months. The playlist for something pretty close to ever..

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