Unforseen Phenomena I was honoured to have been asked by Justine to write something about her most recent work. She had heard me perform with my group The Necks at Café Oto in London last year, and felt we shared a strong like-mindedness in our approaches to making art. With me not being particularly well versed in either historical or contemporary photographic practice, we decided I should write about what I know – my own work – and allow for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions as to the similarities it shares with Justine’s. Certain similarities struck me right away. Foremost is the allowance for unforeseen phenomena to heavily influence both the construction processes and final outcomes of the photographs - whether these be the unknowing contact of the passersby; the influence of architectural elements; or the unpredictable lighting discrepancies found in a dark room. There is also the amassing of similar, discreet utterances – through multiple exposures (with each utterance a distinct performance) – to build up her pieces. In her exploration of the long exposure, time itself comes to the fore (time becomes Time), lending to Justine’s work a decided musicality. In the palimpsests behind the resultant images, lie months of shifting rhythms – haptic and light-based, social and natural, regular and chaotic. The following, then, is an attempt to write, aphoristically, about some of my approaches to playing the piano and making recordings. One musicality is here being used to speak about the other * *
Things can seem like they’re repeating but they’re not. Tiny discrepancies in each utterance can, over a sequence of utterances, lead to massive change - to the arrival at a place without knowledge of how that feat was accomplished. How did we get here? Nothing seemed to be changing and yet, here we are. It’s a little like cellular division in the aging process. A piece goes from young to old, having a teleology that works against pure ambience. The smaller the discrepancies, the more covert is the development; also the more hypnotic. The discrepancies are unavoidable, not planned. They come about through human action - the non-repeatability of human action. There must be the allowance of space for things to develop outside of the control of the performer/composer. The influence of light; of acoustics; of architectural space; the quality of tools and instruments; the emotional energy from people in the audience - all of these things influence how a piece develops in both formal and aesthetic ways. Things start to sound exciting; things begin to resonate and reflect off surfaces in strange ways. I naturally gravitate towards these things. I don’t verbalise or intellectualise – I don’t consciously decide. I just go with it - try to keep reproducing whatever it is that’s causing the phenomena to occur. The elements that are out of the control of the performer are noise elements. Noise is not an autonomous thing, separate to a piece of music or work of art; It as an element that brings about distance between the artist and the resultant work. All human performances have a noise dimension to them, with some performances being noisier than others. The work is site specific; no two spaces are exactly the same; no two instruments are the same; no two audiences are the same; no two amplification systems are the same.
In a sense, the music plays you. Something powerful starts to happen and one tries to keep it happening – tries not to consciously dictate where things go. I don’t want to hear myself making decisions. I want to make music. I don’t want to merely aestheticise my conscious thoughts. It’s important to create something that can then direct itself. One produces the raw sound that feeds the music, but the music has a sentience of its own - an autonomy. One is compelled to keep providing the music with sound. One must step outside of the composition and enjoy it as if a member of the audience. A feedback loop happens – the artist is informed by the work to make more of it. The piece will complete itself in its own time. I’m not interested in consciously trying to force the music into premeditated formal structures. To force it to conform to a structure would be detrimental to it, it will arrive with its own structure, if allowed. One thing follows another; that is the structure. To strike the surface of the string repeatedly with a hammer, at a high frequency, results in unpredictable harmonic modulation. This is because the string is still vibrating when it is struck again and again – with each strike occurring at different stages of the string’s vibrating envelope. There is a form of sonic animation at work. The harsh, individual attacks of the piano’s hammers hitting strings, join together to create a fluid, moving continuous sound, rather like film frames speeding in front of a projector’s light. The resonation of one string can cause other strings to vibrate sympathetically. The amount of sympathetic resonation is wildly different between instruments.
Pressing the piano keys down is an expressive act, not merely a delivery system for sound production. There is an emotional quality to the physical act. Control of the piano hammer is relinquished prior to it hitting the string. In essence the hammer is thrown at the string – the last few millimetres of its transit are in free fall. The hammer fall prints a vibration. The outcome of the recording of a live performance is unknown – sometimes it’s predictable, sometimes it isn’t. The reproduction – playing back - of a live recording is an approximation. Nothing but a replica of the pipes of an organ, for instance, can convey the quality of sound generated by the myriad of discreet sound producing elements of the instrument. With a recording, the unfolding of a piece of music can be heard over and over again, with each listening signifying a different set of meanings to the listener. This is not limited to the specificity of the playback machinery or the domain of acoustics. Things that may have sounded exciting in the moment of performance can lose their vitality by being heard a second time - large shifts in dynamics can sound illogical or contrived once decoupled from an unfolding teleology. Some things should only be listened to once - while they’re being made. On the other hand, performances that may have seemed disappointing at the time of their creation can be deeply powerful when listened back to, on a recording. The production of a recording generally sees an infinite number of acoustic perspectives reduced down to two – there is a change in dimensionality.
All energy is lost as heat. A vibrating piano string on its journey to stasis will spend its energy as heat. * There are other musical/sound art approaches that seem related to Justine’s work. The use of analog field recordings is one. Justine’s “field recordings”, however, are made without the use of a device; they are akin to leaving the analog recording tape itself out in the open. I’m also reminded of Ross Bolleter’s music, made on ruined pianos – these are instruments that have spent a required amount of time outdoors in order to be classified as “ruined”. However, Justine uses a camera as much to ruin images as to capture them. Another thing that comes to mind is Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music – whereby a “feeding back” microphone is left to swing, suspended above a speaker cone through which it’s being amplified. Over time, with the gradual diminution of the arc of the swing, increasingly longer lasting bouts of feedback are brought about until finally stasis is reached and the microphone hangs directly above the speaker, feeding back continuously. The similarity is in the allowance for the influence of unmitigated physics on the creation of the work. Justine’s photographs make me think about Noise and whether, once incorporated into a work of art, it can still exist as a thing in itself.
Chris Abrahams is best known as the pianist in the music trio The Necks. He has also released eight solo albums and has composed soundtracks for film, radio and television.
LIST OF WORKS Cover Edge 123 x 98.5cm
Remebering #1 (detail) 55 x 43.5cm
Remebering #6 (detail) 89 x 71.5cm
Remebering #16 97.5 x 78.5cm
Enter 123.5 x 98.7cm
Back Cover Vanity 36.5 x 29.5cm
Remebering #12 (detail) 116.5 x 93.5cm Exit (red state) 122 x 98.5cm Remembering #5 (detail) 65 x 52cm Remebering #15 46.5 x 37cm Remebering #14 (detail) 35 x 28cm Habit 53 x 43.3cm Remebering #9 (detail) 55 x 43.5cm Exit (Pink state) 122 x 98.5cm
series: Accumulate, 2014/2015 type C Hand Prints editions of 5 + 2AP
36 Gosbell Street Paddington NSW 2021 Australia Tel 61 2 9331 7775, Web www.stillsgallery.com.au
ACCUMULATE online exhibition catalogue