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Sumi-e and field recordings in musical practice Charles Underriner and Nico Couck (charlesunderriner@alum.calarts.edu) & (nico.couck@hotmail.com) http://www.chazunderriner.com University of North Texas, Ph.D. Candidate in Music Composition, USA Royal Conservatory of Antwerp, Master in Music - Guitar, Belgium ABSTRACT The purpose of this paper is to establish a connection between Japanese monochrome ink painting of the Muromachi Period (1337-1573 C.E.) and the use of field recordings in current musical practice through a subjective understanding of landscape and soundscape. The ramifications of this connection will be explored using the case study of nocturne series: 1 for two electric guitars and field recording by Charles Underriner and will include some comments on performance practice by guitarist Nico Couck. BODY OF PAPER Soundscapes, Field Recording and the Frame Field recording is the practice of making a sound recording of an acoustic environment for means of documentation and/or art-making. The use of environmental sound recordings in music has occurred since the works of Luc Ferrari (Presque Rien ou le lever du Jour au Bord de la Mer) and similarly in the works of John Cage (Fontana Mix) and composers such as Pierre Schaeffer of the Musique concrète tradition. A thorough history of the use of field recordings in music is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is fair to say that the use of recorded environmental sound and the harnessing of the global soundscape has penetrated the imagination of the musical community for generations. Field recording necessarily includes a frame in its representation of a given soundscape. The limitations of recording techniques makes complete documentation of even the smallest area for a short amount of time a daunting task, particularly when an engineer is faced with issues of mic placement, being off the technological grid and the capriciousness of the elements. Because a “perfect” technical means of recording any acoustic environment has not yet been achieved and may be impossible, every field recording must exclude sonic information. The choices an engineer makes in what to leave out of their field recording, (the placement of a frame of limitation in an audio recording), is a subjective decision that reveals the taste and unique characteristics of the recordist him or herself. Far before any recording is used in music or artmaking, the aesthetic spirit of the individual is present in the primary stage of documentation. Thus, the placement of a frame is a telling and universal concern in the harnessing of the soundscape. Landscapes and the Frame The same may be said about the painter in reference to a given visual environment: “Landscape per se does not exist; it is amorphous—an indeterminate area of the earth's surface


and a chaos of details incomprehensible to the perceptual system. A landscape requires selective viewing and a frame. The ‘line’ of a mountain crest, woods, or prairie silhouetted against the sky is imaginary; it lies in the eye of the beholder. Landscapes need...the subjectivation of nature.” Hildegard Binder Johnson argues that we need the subjective frame to establish a landscape in the first place. [1] Without our subjectivity, the landscape does not exist, merely the land itself. Regardless of one’s viewpoint on this issue, it is evident that subjectivity is remarkably significant in both soundscape and landscape. Throughout the history of visual art, different approaches and styles have emerged concerning the genre of landscape painting. Beginning with its ancient origins in cave paintings, the murals produced during the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten and the stage scenery of the Greeks, “pure” landscape paintings weren’t produced in the West until around 1500 by German painters such as Albrecht Dürer and Altdorfer. These landscapes were “unjustified by emblemata, figures, or narrative, and [were] filled instead with almost expressionistic scenes of northern forest or woodland pond.” [2] In Albrecht Dürer’s Landscape, road bordered with rocks and trees close to Nuremberg (Fig. 1) we find the artist’s rendering of an idyllic pastoral scene in a pen drawing. The level of accuracy in the detail of the landscape is masterful and speaks volumes of Dürer’s technical prowess. It is apparent that much of the skill involved in the creation of landscapes in this style derives from the ability to realistically represent a given scene with a sophisticated level of detail and with an eye trained for creating stimulating compositions. In the same point in history, there was a renaissance of Japanese landscape painting using monochrome ink (or sumi-e) of Chinese origin during the Muromachi Period. [3] One of the most influential painters of this period was Zen monk Sesshū Tōyō (b. 1420, d. 1506). Sesshū’s studies in China enabled him to master Fig. 1: Albrecht Dürer, Landscape, road bordered with rocks and trees close to Nuremberg (1505) a multiplicity of painting techniques, such as the “ink-spashing” style exemplified in Hatsuboku Landscape for Soen, one of his most famous paintings. (Fig. 2) [4] The sensibility of Japanese painters in this era differs in the extreme from their colleagues in early 16th century Europe as is exemplified in the differences between Dürer and Sesshū’s respective landscapes. The primary aesthetic of Sesshū in this landscape is one of artful subtraction and contains an individual


representation of nature that borders on the abstract. This contrasts significantly with the much more literal representation of nature in Dürer’s landscape. The technical differences in these paintings may be understood as a result of their means of production: pen and ink as opposed to ink applied with various brushes. However, the differences of these works delve into the heart of the matter, to the differences of philosophy and aesthetics which distinguish these artists into separate worlds entirely. Dürer and Sesshū apply the frame to their work with a completely different intention and realize their conception with a completely different character. Sesshū empties the frame of his landscape save for the juxtaposition of lively vegetation against the imposing force of the distant mountains. The eye is drawn by the vibrant deepblack brush strokes of the tree up to the top of the frame to the mountains wrapped in mist. The empty space carved out around the mountains by the mist creates space for meditative thought and for a deep consideration of the juxtaposition created by Sesshū. The landscape seems to live in the inner world of contemplation: its mixture of the gentle brushstroke with the bold and dramatic stroke enlivens the scene. By contrast, the drawing by Dürer with its uniformity of thin lines drawn is more objective. Despite the reasonable amount of empty space left in Dürer’s overall composition, it seems that there has been much more detail left in the frame than in Sesshū’s landscape. Fig. 2: Sesshū Tōyō, Hatsuboku Landscape for Soen (1495) Sesshū eliminates detail in favor of poetic nuance. This artistic liberty is the expression of the Japanese painterly tenet of “esorogoto” or “invented fiction” in the landscape. This “artistic unreality” captures the spirit of the scene without reproducing the exact space. In fact, the truly excellent sumi-e painting “must not be a facsimile”. [5] Much unlike Dürer’s landscape and many works of Western artists, unnecessary detail in the art of Japanese painting is an absolute murderer. Another significant principle in the art of Japanese painting is “sei do” or “living movement”. This is the “transfusion...of the felt nature of the [subject]” into the work. [6] The content of any sumi-e painting must be translated through the spirit of the painter. The artist must intuitively understand his subject and portray it with a sensitive poetic understanding. If the artist fails to emotionally identify with his subject or fails to convey this with the physical act of painting, the work will fail.


The greatest factor that separates Dürer and Sesshū is the intention of empty space in their compositions. Dürer uses empty space on the page to balance the more significant content of the work, the exquisitely drawn hills and trees, while Sesshū weaves empty space into the very essence of the work. This is indicative of the Japanese aesthetic of “ma” or negative space, which has to do with the physical experience of empty space in a composition. This physicality engages the viewer in their personal imagination, thereby intensifying the experience of the substance inhabiting the empty space. In the Dürer the empty space is essential to experiencing the actual content of the painting, in the Sesshū the empty space is “[just as] significant and fertile in expressive power as [the] filled spaces.” [7] These aesthetics in applying the frame: artistic unreality, emotional conveyance and the intensity of empty space are at the core of what makes this painting by Sesshū so moving. This perspective on creating landscape paintings may also be beneficially translated to the soundscape and thus to field recording and musical practice.

Sumi-e and Field Recording In examining the essential principles of sumi-e painting through the concept of the frame, it is clear that all the techniques and aesthetics which contribute to the excellence of this genre may also be effectively applied to working with sound. Many lessons in the creation of music today may be gleaned from the artistic masters of the past, even those who worked in different mediums than sound. In the same way that the frame is applied to a landscape in Japanese painting, the frame may be applied to the soundscape in field recording. As established above, a recording engineer begins imbue themselves and apply a frame onto a soundscape in the first step of recording. This is far from the extreme subjectivication of a landscape by an artist such as Sesshū, but it is a step in that direction. The techniques and ideals of sumi-e may be utilized by the sound artist in the processing and means of presentation of a field recording. In nocturne series: 1 for two electric guitars and field recording, I have applied numerous simple procedures to the field recording in order to craft it with the ideals of sumi-e. Firstly, I recorded the sounds of the dry Blanco riverbed in Wimberley, Texas at midnight using a relatively unsophisticated SONY ICD-UX512RED Digital Flash Voice Recorder shielded with pantyhose on coat hangers to try to block the wind. This initial step of documentation ensured that my recording would not be very high definition: the equalization would be shaped oddly, wind-noise would inevitably be present and the soundmarks present in the acoustic environment would be relatively poorly accounted for. This low-fidelity forced my hand in several matters of post -production. Specifically, in order to give the soundmarks present in the acoustic environment their proper prominence in the field recording, and thus to give the environment an adequate “emotional conveyance” or “sei do”, it was necessary to do some filtering and level boosting in the frequency bands where the soundmarks were most present. This relatively subtle operation was a compromising of detail in the frequency ranges, which did not contain the rich sound of cicada communication, and thus could be identified as an “artistic unreality” even in its technical modesty. In order to further capture the spirit of the original acoustic environment, I found it necessary to add some arrays of sine tones in very close proximity to one another. (For example, one such array used is a collection of 100 sine tones around .05 - .99 Hz away from each other inhabiting the total range of 399 to 401Hz.) The embedding of these very complex pitched


materials which sound like insect noises into the field recording amplifies the importance of the cicadas in the overall texture in a further expression of artistic unreality or “esorogoto”. The use of sine tones in the field recording also serves to connect the mostly complex noise-based audio content of the recording with the more purely pitched-based sound material of the electric guitar duet. In another of manifestation “artistic unreality” and “living movement”, the electric guitars function for much of the piece by generating quiet noise with the interaction of magnetic pickups and the magnetic field of an ebow (which is further explained below). The gradual emergence of pitch from the quiet noise of the guitars is a blooming of the environmental sound into a musical setting. At the heart of this juxtaposition is to meld the musical sound into the field recording itself rather than use the field recording as a background to the musical sound. In preparing a performance of nocturne series: 1, it is crucial that the volume level of the field recording be equal or slightly quieter than that of the environmental sound of the performance space. At its best, this results in a blend of the recording and the sound latent in the performance space. However, the environmental sound in any performance space, no matter how finely controlled, is inherently contingent. This infusion of chance and circumstance into a highly controlled and composed field recording seeks to evoke the intensity of empty space or “ma”: each sound world provides a gateway to experience the other in a new way through a transparent overlapping. By quietly pushing the boundaries of these different environmental sounds into one another, a more unfamiliar and complex environment is cultivated. The last and perhaps most dramatic compositional procedure I have undertaken in this piece is to make very hard cuts in the playback of the field recording. My intention with this is to create a mental shift in focal point for the listener. Once one becomes accustomed to a relatively quiet and constant environmental sound such as the running of a refrigerator, it is quite jarring when the refrigerator suddenly shuts off. Only in its disappearance is attention brought to this sound. This, to me, contains some small emotional power which is useful in the performance environment. A break into nothingness brings fresh revelation of what has really been present all along.

Performance Practice in nocturne series: 1 The application of the principles of sumi-e to field recordings and musical practice also has ramifications for performance practice. In a broad sense the term “performance practice” refers to the skills and abilities a performer must master in order to fully succeed in performing a composition, whether technical or mental in nature. First one must overcome technical difficulties on his instrument, before a deeper understanding of the work as a whole can occur. Yet in many cases, as in nocturne series: 1, the two are inseparable and are to be considered as equals and simultaneously. The first technical difficulty appears in the choice of instruments - two electric guitars and a gentle field recording. Electric guitars are known to produce massive amounts of volume, yet in nocturne series: 1 the instrument finds itself in a setting never exceeding extremely small dynamics. Secondly, the performer is required to assimilate extended techniques with an ebow. The ebow is a hand-held device designed to make a guitar string vibrate continuously, comparable with a bowed note on e.g. a violin. In nocturne series: 1 the guitarist must use a variety of precarious hand mutes, finger stops, and points of fixation of the ebow in order to produce sounds moving between noise and perceptible pitches. Since these physical gestures are not only to be called upon independently, but also in direct combination with common plucked


notes - and considering the limited dynamic range of the work - the performer is offered a vast series of challenges to overcome. In many of Charles’ works, a manipulation of the listening experience is the point of departure, as in nocturne series: 1. There is a large scale development of texture which is to be understood and put into perspective, not only in the study of the instrumental necessities, but also in the mental perception of the performer. Three distinct manners of sound production can be observed in nocturne series: 1 - noise, pitches and the field recording. Between these three states of creating audible material, there is a gradual change of texture, each time without distinct subdivisions. Close observation even reveals different, hardly noticeable events that make the changes in texture even harder to perceive as listener (e.g. vocal sounds). The composition opens with material that reminds one of “musique concrete instrumentale” in a very subtle manner. The main body of the work can be considered as a transitioning from concrete instrumental noise to Fig. 3: Charles Underriner, nocturne series: 1 (2012) (excerpt) pure pitched material - over, through, and thanks to the field recording. The sounds of the riverbed take over man-made noise and, over time, open up the way to more clear sounds. For me, nocturne series: 1 is not about performing a musical composition - it’s about creating an audible environment that changes gradually and without presence of time. A certain consciousness has to be cultivated towards sounds that are not there, an awareness towards silence and towards textures that have grown absent. In this continuous flow focus converges on matters that are otherwise ignored. If a tree falls in forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?


[1] & [2] Fitter, Christopher, et al. "Landscape." In Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, edited by Michael Kelly. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t234/e0320 (accessed June 23, 2012). [3] Richard Louis Edmonds, et al. "Japan." In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T043440pg10 (accessed June 23, 2012). [4] Gennifer Weisenfeld. "Tōyō Sesshū." In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T085938 (accessed June 23, 2012). [5] Henry P. Bowie On the Laws of Japanese Painting (Dover, 1962) p. 80 [6] Henry P. Bowie On the Laws of Japanese Painting (Dover, 1962) p. 78 [7] Saito, Yuriko, et al. "Japanese Aesthetics." Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Ed. Michael Kelly. Oxford Art Online (accessed June 23, 2012)

Sumi-e and field recordings in musical practice  
Sumi-e and field recordings in musical practice  

academic paper analyzing nocturne series:1

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