15 Jan 2018

Martin Nutt, TMN. Trichromatic Moiré (score), 2017

It's January, and summer in Dunedin. The empty days are stark and long and bright, and there is a held silence to my part of the city, up on the ridge. A poise, as if the new year is delaying itself as long as it can, not quite ready to begin. Harsh, caustic, white South Island light, framed in the warped late-19th century windows, sketches across surfaces, creating heavily delineated geometries on scarred floors of native hardwood and 1930s celadon green attic room walls, an irregular angular architecture, shifting with the rotation of the day. The wind-torn doppler effect of exuberant childrens' voices normally audible from the school over the road is now silent, and my house is a wooden, many-caverned ear. Listening in to the tiny sounds of the outside. Its two stories are a creaking ship, cool and dark and solid, yet crooked open to the emptiness and brilliant light.

I'm currently spending my time in this house working on a piece for Martin Nutt, the British-born, Japan-based composer, for a CD release in early March, as part of 2018's Audiograft Festival. This festival is held annually by the Sonic Art Research Unit (SARU) at Oxford Brookes University, UK. I'm one of a few artists sent the score for TMN. Trichromatic Moiré (2017).

I met Martin Nutt once, in 2015, when he was still engaged in his MA in Sound Art at Oxford Brookes, and I was a visiting artist. We talked for a gratifying half hour or so, as part of a series of crits. I really loved, and found affinities, with the work he was doing, which at the time included beautiful, seemingly fluxus-inspired, text scores in meticulous individual envelopes, inscribed with GPS coordinates, which situated the potential listener in precisely-mapped places, but left a fluid indeterminacy to the experiental listening of the imagined (or actual) site, in their evocation of an always-failed capturing of the repeated experience of sited sound. A nuanced programmatic/poetic. At least that's what I remember.

When I first unwrapped Martin's exquisitely screen-printed score, which arrived at the house in a tube all the way from Japan, it comprised three fields - three sets of gridded dots in primary colours - on thick, creamy paper, along with a brief note hand-typed on almost-transparent onionskin. I was struck by the score's shifting insubstantiality, again it seemed to contain a precise mapping which left the evocation of an indeterminacy, an open set, hanging in the air. A diagram of some element of the physical, perhaps, with its primaries co-minging to colours not present except in the eye's ability to filter light, but also a micro-solidifying of a barely-captured immediacy, a moment of seeing or hearing. It looked like the light of the day I could see through the thick, old glass of my 1899 window, if I squinted. Like the warped, sparkling view across the breadth of land all the way to the sea. There was something both compelling and distinctly moving about its formality, its sense of air, its lightness, its fleeting, shifting materiality.

I looked at it a while. I held it up and shifted it to look at every angle. There was no top, nor bottom. It changed with the light. The three fields shifted relation, the set of red, the set of blue moved in and out of primacy, each sometimes appearing on top of the other. Sometimes, especially under the lights at night, the set of yellow was not visible at all. The pooling of the grids turned the squares into a series of luminous circles, starbursts, throbs and cadences. Like all good artworks, there were many angles, many connotations, many sparks to be gathered and noted. Initially, it all set me thinking of the interference patterns of early film and pre-film optics, the 1920s works of Walter Ruttmann and Oskar Fischinger, or of early computer art. Then I thought about the sonic moire effect of radio beacons, themselves precisely mapped to the territories of the air, yet their meaning entirely determined by their apprehension by a listener, a body moving through space. They merely say "I am here", to whoever they reach across toward. I listened to a few radio beacons I'd recorded on Kapiti Island in 2012 (one of which ended up on the first track of three inclements (the ocean does not mean to be listened to)), and in Germany in 2016. But there were none to be heard on my shortwave radios from my vantage point in the attic studio in the wooden house up on the ridge in Dunedin, even in the depth of night, after much searching. The shortwave air itself was silent. Then I thought of the score as a notation of morse code. The single dot is E. The double is I. Three dots is S. Four is H. And so on. The score's regularity, in fact, contained many poetries in its structure of three overlaying significances, like a blank crossword puzzle. My mind boggled, full of too many infinities. Too open to make any gesture at all.

In the morning, a sparrow was out my window, yelling rhythmically on the powerline, at something. "E E E E E E", it said. I watched it for a while, trying to figure out whether the vocalisations I could hear had any connection with what I could see on the street, which was precisely nothing. As far as I could gather, no cat, no person, no other bird was inspiring the monotonous signal, as regular and ongoing as a metronome. But this imperceptible nothing was clearly a perceivable something to the bird, perhaps the announcing of a territory, whose bounds also clearly included my house.  I noticed sparrows doing the same thing on various days, and wondered whether this monotonous call was a local phenomenon, in the process finally listening to where I was, by focusing down on the specificities of the least interesting bird in my neighbourhood, the most invisible and overlookable, one brought over at great cost by acclimatisation societies in the late 19th century from England. Not native to New Zealand but now acclimatised beyond all noticing. Its presence is part of a hidden project of doubling. The settler-colonial replication of a place that this is not, layered on the place that this once was, with only the barest edge showing of each. But both are still here, and it is still a palimpsest, which, with careful listening, becomes discernable. The sparrow - like all our other Colonial Minion Biota - is an introduced weed, just like me. This then led to the realisation that the house was probably the bird's territory just as much as it was mine, at the same moment as I found the score was starting to reflect the sparrow's regular shouting, its "E E E E E E E", to become a transcript. That the different layers of the score were, in fact, three sparrows shouting, from the vantage point of three territories slightly overlapping.

The idea that what we listen to contemplatively as "bird song" is largely the alarm calls of birds, has increasingly interested me. There is some perverse irony to the figure of the twitcher, avidly notating the bird calls she hears in the field, who in her observational detachment or acquisitive appreciation of diversity might still dimly recognise that the bird is itself reacting to her being there. That what she is listening to is not imperviously "out there" but specifically the sound of a bird-human relation, the signal, beacon or marker of her own human presence. "You are here, and I notice you", the bird says. Any chance to understand this situation of encounter is much truer of bird watching in the field, and is a relation entirely destroyed by the process of recording bird sound. As a field recordist, I'm as culpable in this as the twitcher. I often wonder if the birds I manage to capture are yelling at me to stop stealing, telling me to go away, critically assessing what I'm doing, or alerting others of their kind to my presence - "watch out for this one". I try not to generalise in my use of these sounds, or let the sound fully stand in for, represent, the living bird. It's surprisingly hard to retain the specificity of a digital sound file, especially if its listener was not there with you. This paradox is clearest in the extinct bird notations I've been using in various projects, especially those which have been specific to the lost relation of Maori vocalisations to specific birds and their warnings - such as the huia's call, translated to english as the onomatopoeic "who are you?" And in the neighbourhoods of other living kinds, even if those forests are memories of ruins, who are we, really? A dead bird can no longer call or answer, and what can we say we know of it, if our only trace of it is the sound of it's noticing of us?

With all this in mind, in the studio I set up a controlled experiment in reanimation, using the unheeded warnings of a bird in an inconsequential sound recording buried on my harddrive, and three radio transmitters positioned around the room, whose three circles of signal slightly overlapped. The triangulated warning call of the recorded bird was transmitted back simultaneously, on each of them. Receivers of various kinds were called in to listen to the signals, positioned as a scattering to further extend the non-binary, non-stereophonic sound patterning beyond the initial layering. They chattered among themselves, as they do. I made a small enclosure of listening with the three frequencies, with the multiple receivers, like a forest clearing within the room, in which all other signals were temporarily blocked. Ecological territories, becoming territories of radio frequency, of beacon signal. Delineating a three dimensional listening space as a field within the wooden spaces of my home, which is also the sparrow's home. In this, my way of realising Martin's score finally emerged.

I operated a live transmission as a performance among the three territories of signal, in order to blur them into a new, three dimensional space, a layered deterritorialisation if you will, all the while trying to maintain the effervescence and lightness the score also held, while also incorporating other sound-material into the three-way narrowcast. The intent perhaps was to give the score some cultural specificity or historical depth, however ephemeral, as it shifted through its own kind of chromatic register, its architecture of shapes appearing within a warping, distorting cloud of radio static and chittering, agitated bird staccato. Through this cloud a few other gestures were breifly audible: interpretations of pre-technological recorded bird warning signals, notated, imprecisely into western musical notation on a garden path in Wellington in the 1930s, played on violin. A 78rpm shellac record called "elegy", fleetingly sampled for a refrain that once stuck, Deleuze and Guattari child-in-the-forest style, in my head for days. The relation between music and territory, from the 11th plateau, 1837:

"When do I do Tralala? When do I hum? I hum in three various occasions. I hum when I go around my territory… and that I clean up my furniture with a radiophonic background… meaning when I am at home. I also hum when I am not at home and that I am trying to reach back my home… when the night is falling, anxiety time… I look for my way and I give myself some courage by singing tralala. I go toward home. And, I hum when I say “Farewell, I am leaving and in my heart I will bring…”. That’s popular music “Farewell, I am leaving and in my heart I will bring…”. That’s when I leave my place to go somewhere else. In other words, the ritournelle (refrain), for me, is absolutely linked to the problem of territory, and of processes of entrance or exit of the territory, meaning to the problem of deterritorialization. I enter in my territory, I try, or I deterritorialize myself, meaning I leave my territory."

I called this realisation, edited and finished today and final for all intents and purposes, study for territorial warnings (a bird of fire, a bird of air, a bird of dust).   

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