The matter of things: the organic dimension of the sound
A conversation with Scott Gibbons
I. The logic of the composition
M.#10 Marseille (2004) by Romeo Castellucci|Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio and Scott Gibbons
I would like to start this conversation with a definition about the notion of composition: in your long experience, what is composition and what does this concept involve in your imagination of the sound ?
I find it most useful to think about a composition as including all of the interlocking components that the audience can perceive (consciously or not) including, but not limited to music, sound design, text (spoken or subtitled), lighting, scenography, and any actions or movements. In practice, I often use musically terms to discuss with the other designers and artists on a project about, for example, "the moment where the lights play their drum solo in this section", or "this coda from the scenography is taken up by the sound design here". Of course in the contemporary situation there is often a clear symbiosis between video and audio, but I often find it necessary to think also about elements such as the emotional state of a character, or the way that the scenography and lighting are working together, or the presence of a prop on stage - as clear lines of musical notation to be worked into the arrangement. Not as lines, which should be illustrated, embellish upon or demonstrated, but as legitimate musical elements in and of themselves.
In this way, the music does not become a soundtrack, and the action does not follow the music to become like a music video; rather, the whole of the piece functions with an internal harmony and elegance, as one single living body comprised of different organs.
This kind of unity can give a greater impact than having multiple streams synchronized but working independently.
In this moment on the electronic scene, according to me, there are two tendencies: an internal organic line in which the materials are organized in order to outline a narrative fabric; on the other hand, an external organic line in which the materials operate towards abstraction. Nevertheless, the two layers above mentioned (the sound and the visual) are not opposed to each other, but they're both inscribed in a system of shades. Could you speak about this tension on narrative/abstractive dimension in your work ?
Although I will often use a very specific narrative to guide my process, I try to obscure recognizable or identifying details from the listener's perception. Often people give contradicting accounts of their interpretations, and any two people can have completely different impressions. That's fine. When I work with a narrative, I am not interested in relating a specific story. The events and characters can be plastic, like in our dreams. The logic underneath should be cohesive of course, and the lines should lead us somewhere which is astounding or surprising, preferably even inside ourselves. But there is no need for the lines to be reassuring or familiar. What is necessary is a taut structure and rigorous discipline in the research. This empowers the audience.
Scott Gibbons, What are doing it (live) – in (unreleased) 2002
This process tells of an important relationship, in your research, between art, science and technology. What does it mean for you, to relate the art and science ? At what level takes place in your work ?
That blurry space where one ends and the other begins is a great source for inspiration for me. My studio doesn't look very different than a science lab, and I've worked with many technology and software companies, scientists and researchers in their facilities to develop musical elements. At University, I took courses that enriched my understanding of composition in the departments of Fine Arts, Sociology, Anthropology, Mathematics and Physics; my final research project was actually split and shared between the departments of Philosophy and Art.
Art, science and technology. Each enriches, informs and directs the others in the same way that smell, taste and sight are all intertwined in one's appreciation of a fine meal: they are simply different angles of approaching the same thing.
II. The organic dimension of a sound
The tactile quality of a sound is an important characteristic of your work, like in Field notes (1999) or in Imagined Compositions for Water (2004): a form of “acoustic surgery”. Could you talk about a physical (or organic) dimension of sound in your concept of composition?
I like your suggestion about acoustic surgery. One of the first artists with whom I felt a strong affinity was Andreas Vesalius, who made anatomical drawings from cadavers.
(Going back to your earlier question, I notice that I accused Vesalius of being an artist. He was actually an anatomist and physician!)
In the 1980's I designed my first public performances as multi-point installations. Instead of having an array of speakers directing sound towards the audience, I would place very special sounds in specific speakers, which would be suspended or placed throughout the room, and the audience was encouraged to freely pass through the rooms under their own direction. There was not sound coming continuously through all of the speakers; there was a natural dynamic and rhythm inside each one. I still work in this way. In theatre this is obvious because we have speakers placed very specifically – frontally, inside objects on the stage, firing into the scene, even in the seating for the audience – and we play with the spatialization, sometimes giving a more cinematic presentation, sometimes in a more hyper-real manner.
And now, it's true, over time I find myself less and less trying to chisel away the extraneous material until I find the thing I'm searching for inside. Instead, I find myself diving in deeply and exploring from inside. It is a form of surgery, you're absolutely correct. Rather than trying to bring something out, I make incisions and go inside. I like making field recordings. I like using hydrophones and contact microphones to amplify the inaudible. I like using 'found' formulas and sequences from nature to compose. I'm much more curious about these trajectories than I am about anything that a synthesizer or software could do, in part because I am delighted to play the role of spectator. I control the engineering and construction of the montage, but the source material exists independently of my intensions. I enter, explore, take notes, and depart. Then I try to define and encapsulate what I found so compelling about the experience.
This organic character of sound is used to The Cryonic Chants (2006) realized with Chiara Guidi and Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio. Could you speak about the sound process of this concert ?
The Cryonic Chants focused around texts, which were generated by the autonomous movements of a goat. (The Cryonic Chants grew out of Tragedia Endogonedia, which was an examination of Tragedy; the etymology of the word 'Tragedy' invokes the song of the sacrificial goat.)
A floor was covered with the alphabetical representation of several DNA sequences particular to goat-ness (of growing goat horns for example). That same goat was placed on that floor, and - as he roamed quite freely - the letters over which he stood or passed were recorded as a phonemic sequence.
For Tragedia Endogonidia, Chiara & I had already created a large library of sound material, most of it created through manipulation of the voice & body (teeth, bones) interacting with electronics (modular synthesizers used as sound processors) and acoustics (passing sound through tubes, swinging speakers, using the natural reverbs of different spaces). The Cryonic Chants was realized as a concert, so there was a certain amount of samples and prepared elements taken from this sound library. Then I also had recordings from the video documentation of the goat's feet as he walked, and a few of his bleats.
A basic skeletal structure was synchronized with video footage of the goat on the floor; of that whole process. Then I played live samples - some composed and some improvised, and some from the video footage - and processed the singer's voices while they sang the goat-generated texts. So nearly all of the sound was vocal, or at least bodily, but all of it was highly processed and manipulated.
Chiara Guidi and Scott Gibbons The Cryonic Chants (2006)
In this way you are constantly seeking a physics of the sound, perception level of a sounds, of the variation created by relation between sound and silence. In other words, this is the definition of an inaudible background texture that makes the audible stand out and be perceived. Could you speak about this relation in your composition between audible and inaudible, for example in Unheard, sonic arrangements from the microcosmos (2014) ?
My intension for Unheard... was that the audience should feel as though they were children looking through a microscope for the first time. I remember that delight I felt as a child when I saw microscopic events - cellular structures and life forms from river water - but only a very small round window in the center would ever be in focus, while the peripheral was dramatically blurred and distorted, and it was very difficult to stay fixed on any one image for any length of time. So I wanted it to be a little frustrating as well as delightful, with a constant background noise and distortion, with fleeting exquisite crystalline or insectile images passing through occasionally.
Scott Gibbons Unheard
You have made a lot of collaborations, in particular with Groupe F – theatre of fire or Romeo Castellucci and Sociètas Raffaello Sanzio. Could you speak around the technical process for the realization of FireWorks pt 6 (2003) with Groupe F ?
At the beginning we wanted to work on a project that completely integrated music and pyrotechnics together. We didn't want fireworks on music, or a fireworks design with soundtrack. We wanted to fuse the two elements together to create a hybrid form that none of us had seen before. And it didn't have to be great; it just had to be something new. Christophe Berthonneau (the artistic director of Groupe F) spoke about how he loved the sound of pure fireworks, and he had a recording made at one of Groupe F's fireworks shows from a far distance where it was possible to hear only the "pam! pam! pam! tetetetetetetetetet POUM!" of the fireworks, without the accompanying music or roar of the spectators. So we started with that recording, and a library of sounds that I assembled in Groupe F's workshop of more delicate sounds such as flamethrowers, etc. I used an e-Mu sampler and Digital Performer software to create a piece of musique concrète that would embrace the real sounds of the pyrotechnics and make it unclear to the spectators which sounds were real and which were prepared. Christophe and I worked very hard on the music together - even while he was simultaneously designing the pyrotechnics - because he knew very well which of Groupe F's devices would give specific colors, timbres and volumes. Although he is not a musician in the traditional sense, he approached the project as a very skilled and knowledgeable composer and arranger. We also had sections where I would "play" the fireworks as percussion from a manual controller to further fuse the two.
Scott Gibbons & Groupe F, Fire works (2003)
I am interested at the "sonorous form" of the time. According to me, in your work, this aspect is important. For example in Alphabet (2002) composed in collaboration with Romeo Castellucci, or in other compositions. In which sense your work about the sound manipulates time ?
We humans are aware of time, but we have no control over it. Our awareness of time is one element that can be played with however. When time seems to be compressed or distended, our brains try to compensate for that sensation. In that vertigo it's possible to inject something...
III. The acoustic presences:
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