Music, Marginality and some Misgivings about the ‘Utopia of Access’

For many, this year’s Venice Biennale has had a veil drawn over it; one that draws us back to core questions concerning any ‘Utopia of Access’ – the theme of the Research Pavilion. For artists around the world, most directly, perhaps, those living in the south of England, the death of artist Khadija Saye, one of the victims of the appalling fire in the high-rise building in West London known as Grenfell Tower, circles about the Biennale in a manner hauntingly reminiscent of the smoky greys she employed in her silkscreen prints. Saye’s mission to recover ‘diaspora’ as an artistic category could not alter her real-life situation; utopian access in one arena – Venice – was not matched by the more everyday right-of-entry in another – a safe home in which to live.

Confronted with this brutal juxtaposition, can the philosophical allure of Utopia feel anything but irrelevant; and what might this mean for the relevance of this year’s Venice Biennale? The festival’s manifestations are akin to the city’s geography, with its pavilions separated by inky canals and accessible by restricted means (usually by boat). Canals create, and become, margins, places to cross or navigate, but sites of their own meaning as well.

Separation – the denial of access – creates hierarchies but it is the situation of those at the extreme margins of this separation that highlights this most forcibly; in reflecting upon their plight, our attention is drawn further and further towards the liquid margin that is the enforced dwelling-space of the most comprehensively disenfranchised. Venice is at the centre of a spider’s web of travel routes converging upon its strange, unstable, historically-saturated location. Just as its own destiny is inseparable from its inexorable descent into the waters of the lagoon, its cultural attractive force is one that can both engulf the individual visitor and contributes to its own millimetre-by-millimetre inundation. As with other great centres of cultural tourism, ‘La Serenissima’ is being forced to ask difficult questions about access: how to establish priorities and maintain order.

Art-forms in Venice have their own order and prioritisation; the Camino Events pavilion with its music research was a marginal event, outside the Biennale mainstream and physically distant from it, as if the general message of utopian access and the arcane nature of the inner workings of art-music might somehow be impossible to reconcile. Many non-musician artists might concur with this sense of music’s inaccessibility – especially in its most recondite classical and contemporary manifestations. They might also lay the blame for this upon musicians themselves. But is there something more intrinsic to music’s nature as a sonorous art-form, and what does this mean for music’s place in a utopia of access?

There is an association between the denial of access to social and economic security that results in the deaths of Saye and others and the sense of ‘privilege’ that stills surrounds art-music as it is conceived and practised in the West. It is imbued with a forbidding combination of ‘pastness’ and chauvinism with aggressively contemporary elitism and a naively arrogant marginalisation of differently-situated musics; this mixture, in turn and paradoxically, condemns it to the role of ‘Other’ – within the spectrum of musical expression and among the cultural community at large.

However much such criticisms of the contemporary state of art-music may be justified, music in all its manifestations has something of the quality of the inky water of the canals; it draws its meaning through the measured passing of time, obscure in its depths and ungraspable by the eye. Beyond any barriers of privilege that it may have wilfully erected around itself, it is arguably the hardest of the artistic media to pin down, to illuminate and to open up as an ‘authorised’ artistic space for all.

But is part of the concept of a utopian access involved precisely with accessing the supposedly unauthorised spaces? If so, while in many ways more marginal than ever, perhaps music also retains a potential for resistance by virtue of its being without clear margins. Survivors of Grenfell Tower sing hymns in memory of those they have lost; music also echoes up and down the Venetian streets, seeping out of the city’s places of enclosure: many pieces within the Camino events have involved musical wanderings, leaving the site and returning.

What would a Venice Biennale primarily devoted to music be like? Or is such a prospect doomed, as with any utopian project, to remain an unrealisable vision?

 

Darla Crispin
Vice Rector for Research
Director of the Arne Nordheim Centre for Artistic Research
Norwegian Academy of Music, Oslo

Listening Walks Conceptualised

 

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A morning walk along the coastline of island of Giudecca transforms to an exercise in listening. The overall soundscape consists of dripping of a fountain, rumbling of vaporettos passing by and chiming of church bells over the canal from the shore of Dorsoduro. The layered frontal sounds are easily detected from near, mid and far fields.

Moving away from a reflecting wall to the nearby bridge reveals another sonic experience. The sonic environment opens up to the total of  360 degrees. The frontal sounds are still there, but now they are accompanied by the flapping of the waves of the canal and igniting motorboats right behind the listener.

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These two encounters resonate with the theories and methodologies applied in sound studies. In a recent anthology edited by Christina Guillebaud it is discussed, how the notion of soundscape has been conceptualised and how it relates to the one of ambiance. The former has been understood to relate to visual analogy, two-dimensionality, maps and frontal perception. The concept of ambiance is characterised by such terms as multimodality, three-dimensionality and  immersion. The list here is by no means an exhaustive but a suggestive one. More profound analysis would require further questioning and contextualisation to history of the two disciplines mentioned.

Characterising the concepts of soundscape and ambiance leads us to think of hearing as a special sense compared to other senses. It helps us to further ponder not only the sensory environment, but also how we are relating to the world by listening to it aesthetically, politically and scientifically.

However, in underlining these specific skills and approaches we should avoid the pitfalls what Jonathan Sterne calls audiovisual litany, referring to generalisations on differences between audible and visual worlds. Perhaps even more important is that we should be more aware of not replacing audiovisual litany with multimodal litany. In doing so we would be sweeping the special requirements of act of listening and documenting the soundscapes under the rug.

 

Heikki Uimonen

 

Sources:

Guillebaud, Christina (ed.) 2017. Toward an Anthropology of Ambient Sound.

Sterne, Jonathan. 2003. The Audible Past. Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction.

 

Photos:

Heikki Uimonen

Venetian Sonic Environments

SanMarcoAmbiance is defined as sensory space-time. This sensing and feeling of a place involves a specific mood expressed in the material presence of things and how the mood is embodied. The lived experience as well as the built environment of the place is making the approach both subjective and objective. Ambiance is articulated when social, spatial and physical meet.

Venetian sonic ambiances are constructed in diverse ways in how people relate to places – or how they think particular places are relating to their sound-making. Tourists are entering churches with certain solemnity avoiding extraneous sounds. The Venetian busker is adjusting the outdoor acoustics by moving himself closer to the wall in order to project the sound of his bowed instrument to echoing campo. Open-door rehearsal of Vivaldi in Chiesa San Vidal is attracting passersby for the night’s Vivaldi concert. On Piazza San Marco simultaneous live performances of Mozart’s and Strauss’ music are competing with easy-to-digest jazz in front of the restaurants thus adding up to the image of the city as easy-listening-mid-brow music haven with a past.

12 million tourists are walking yearly the thoroughfares the ”Bermuda-Shorts Triangle” formed by Piazza San Marco, Rialto Bridge and Galleria dell’ Accademia. According to random participatory observation, field notes and field recordings the narrow roads were sonically quite diverse with sounds sources recognisable from each other. Keynote sounds – defined as sounds heard frequently enough to form a background against which other sounds are perceived – are composed of chattering of people and their footsteps reflected by the stony surfaces on the narrow streets and campos. Contrary to common practice in shopping and tourist areas there are no outdoor loudspeakers to centripetally attract possible customers. Somewhat scarce background music from the bars, souvenir shops and mobile phone retail stores of Rio Terra Lista de Spagna are leaking to ears of the pedestrians mainly from radio and commercial music television programmes.

Part of Venice’s charm is the lack of motorised traffic in the streets, which might not after all paint the whole picture of city’s soundscape. Marine internal combustion engines and outdoor motors make the distinctive drone signifying the daily maintenance of the city: the sounds of the public and private transportation and the crunching gearboxes shaking and resonating the vaporettos’ hulls are accompanied by the banging and clinking of the green-coloured iron barges collecting waste. Some of them are labelled as ”Veritas” thus bringing yet another layer to city’s multifaceted ambiance.

 

Heikki Uimonen

Souces:
Davis, Robert C & Marvin, Garry R. 2004. Venice, the Tourist Maze. A Cultural Critique of the World’s Most Touristed City.
Thibaud, Jean-Paul 2001. A Sonic Paradigm of Urban Ambiances. Journal of Sonic Studies, vol 1, nr. 1.

Photo:
Meri Kytö

Ambient Encounters

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In his novel Canal Grande the writer Hannu Raittila describes Venice and its culture through the lens of the group of consultants arriving to the city. The cultural historian is overly enchanted by the city’s layered past and buildings, whereas the engineer with rational mindset and alleged Nordic mentality gets frustrated of the tiny espresso cups filled with way too strong coffee for his taste. The excursion is entering the city in dense fog and is forced to orienteer themselves by the ear and by touching the walls for keeping themselves not falling to canals.

Another angle is offered by urban researchers Davis & Marvin in their study on Venice as a tourist maze and the world’s most touristed city. A peculiar liberation and empowerment can be experienced, when one gets lost deliberately and goes off the beaten track in city’s narrow and winding streets. Sounds – or the lack of them – is definitely making the experience unique. For the contemporary visitor the blessed silence, quiet of the city, slow rhythms, sounds of water and diverse echoes can be tracked down to lack of motorised traffic in this surreal anti-modern world of ”dreamlike quality”, which some visitors might find unsettling.  In mid-1700 century  the unique soundscape was greeted with joy because of the lack of the rattling of coaches and trampling hooves; Victorians facing modernism and its transforming soundscape appreciated the gondolas gliding noiselessly by.

These ambient encounters and many more are discussed and analysed in Walking Sonic Commons  by introducing an open workshop on the Venetian sonic environment. Two-day documentation of sounds by the participants will be followed by an afternoon of editing the collected field work materials and uploading them to an open platform. During the discussion and presentations the acts of listening are contextualised to concept of sonic commons, archiving, accessibility and the researchers’ contribution to preserving cultural heritage.

Heikki Uimonen

Sources:

Raittila, Hannu 2001. Canal Grande

Davis, Robert C & Marvin, Garry R. 2004. Venice, the Tourist Maze. A Cultural Critique of the World’s Most Touristed City.

 

Photo: Meri Kytö

The atmosphere of Venice, sonic weather and virtual urban sonic acupuncture

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“Walk slowly, drift, listen”

Our cities are decaying. We either circulate as fast as possible through public spaces or we inhabit them in a consumerist way. The urban dweller feels little engagement with its environment. Besides, the normalization of what we could call “the headphone city” in which people is creating their own soundtrack for the urban space is contributing to new forms of urban detachment and isolation. The Virtual Urban Sonic Acupuncture App (vusaa) is an artistic invitation to listen to the city with different ears and to feel how a subtle sonic intervention can drive our attention to urban areas and hidden corners fostering a more conscious urban dwelling and social dialogue.

What is Urban Sonic Acupuncture?
We can define acupuncture as a local action by means of a pressure point on a key spot with the power to change the situation globally, beyond the local area in which the pressure point is applied. Sonic acupuncture relies in applying sonic pressure points on key spots affecting the global sonic situation. Urban Sonic Acupuncture parallels the practice of Urban and Public Space Acupuncture in the Aural architecture field. Aural architecture deals with spatial and cultural acoustics, it also assigns four basic functions of sound in space: social, navigational, aesthetic and musical spatiality. Artistic sonic acupuncture interventions are placed along this axis by starting a negotiation between artistic intentions and the local knowledge and practices.

vusaa creates a virtual urban sonic acupuncture intervention in the public space by sensing elements existing in the place the user is in. A generative system is set in motion generating a sonic acupuncture specific to the given conditions the user is at every moment by using the microphone to listen to the environment, the camera for luminance sensing, the clock, and the GPS data.

Besides the inspiration from the practice of Urban Acupuncture, vusaa refers to psychographic techniques that Guy Debord defined as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” and to the soundwalk practice that Hildegard Westerkamp called to “… any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment. It is exposing our ears to every sound around us no matter where we are.”

 

Urban Sonic Acupuncture: Aural strategies for the city space

Blog author Josue Moreno’s event (16.6. at 11 am) will consist of a presentation in which the artist will introduce and illustrate the theoretical and artistic background of his current artistic research on Urban Sonic Acupuncture and an enhanced sound walk by means of virtual sonic acupuncture in the surroundings of the Research Pavilion in Venice using mobile devices.

If you are interested in participating in the event or in testing the app, please contact the author at this email address: josue.moreno.prieto [at] uniarts.fi
Please bring your own headphones to the event.

Opening the Voice Box

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Crazy week. Good crazy.

We are rehearsing the opera Voice Box and in the five days we have finalised the music and the stage is getting there too. The flutist Jacintha Damström is also singing and doing circus and the pianist Maija Parko is playing and lecturing. But the hero of the piece is the coloratura soprano Mia Heikkinen: She is talking and singing, acting and dancing trough the whole piece…

And her voice is also the starting point of the whole piece! The very first word she sings in the opera is actually a map to the whole piece:

One voice with six registers – six lectures about this voice – six worlds. And obviously the huge jumps of the melody demonstrate, that this singer isn’t afraid of anything!VBM02väreillä.jpg

The premier of the Voice Box will be on 18th of May and after this will come the big question: how will we transport it to Venice to the Research Pavilion? At least I’m going to show some best of the video craziness. And then I would love to show you, how I analysed the singer’s voice. I created the Voice Map, which creates a graph of singer’s voice and makes the communication between the singer and the composer easier.

But if talking about voice analysis seems dry, maybe you should watch a video about it. I think using the style of a shopping channel is a perfect way to sell new artistic research and experimental music theatre!

Miika Hyytiäinen’s event “The Voice Map – compose for the person, not for a soprano!” is part of the Research Pavilion’s Camino Events programme.

Learn more