Sounds in a Room
[This is something of both a supplementary essay and a review, being drawn from notes I made to introduce the second session of Sounds in a Room March 18th, 2011. Text submitted to Exhibit-V, April 16th, 2011. See also Philip Willey's review of their work as well as Debora Alanna's review of Olsen's work linked below.]
[NB: This review is of Sounds in a Room, an ongoing new music series at the Slide Room Gallery (http://www.soundsinaroom.com/) featuring Jamie Drouin, Lance Olsen and guests. It also falls on the opening day of Drouin’s sound/light installation at Open Space with Trudi Lynn Smith, Conduit (http://www.openspace.ca/node/1050) running to April 30th and midwat through Olsen’s exhibition of paintings and drypoint etchings, The Road to Esperance (through April 28th at Polychrome Fine Arts http://polychromefinearts.com/. See Also Debora Alanna’s review in Exhibit-V, http://exhibit-v.blogspot.com/2011/04/lance-austin-olsen-road-to-esperance-by.html )]
Sounds in a Room
- i. Let’s talk about the weather
Sounds in a Room is a new music series at the Slide Room Gallery featuring collaboration between Jamie Drouin and Lance Austin Olsen (aka DROUIN/OLSEN) with various guest artists from session to session. Billed as “electroacoustic improvisational music”, the performances feature Olsen employing a variety of seemingly humble objects (such as copper etching plate in concert with a short wire brush) to create textured acoustic interactions, and Drouin working with a small modular synthesizer to create a palette echoing modern electronic noise pollution. Both performers rely on a shared sense of meter to work their improvised synchronicity into (and are reflexively sensitive to) ambient traffic within the compass of architecture and audience.
After attending the first session of the Sounds in a Room series, I was attempting to relate my impressions of the experience to a friend and ended up talking about the weather. Noting the imminent end of winter, I recalled the experience of a recent Christmas sitting by a DVD of a log fire burning in a hearth (embarrassing yes, but filling a need: we haven’t had a proper fireplace since moving out of the childhood home fourteen years ago.) The smell of woodsmoke (as unified, all-one-word complex of olfactory & association) with a sensation of sleepy, just-bearable warmth colouring the cheeks called itself forth with almost Pavlovian authority. The fossil of fire peeled and lifted gently away from the facts of fire was still enough fire for fire-as-memory, reminding me that Prometheus, who in Greek mythology stole fire from heaven to give to men, also duped the gods into accepting the aroma of a burnt offering of fat and bones in place of the meat of the matter.
So listening to Olsen roll a small ball of tinfoil over an amplified copper plate is the frying of onions inciting appetite or the prickle of dander creeping up into allergic nostrils, the rise of the hairs on a forearm in sympathy with another’s gooseflesh; sensation as synesthetic, kinaesthetic currency. How voluble it all is now (later), thinking on fire for food or flesh, with those lean ghostly men dressed in black in a dim room, their sparse surgery producing such whittlings of something-from-nothing!
Charles Baudelaire writes that the passage from apprehension to experience is one of voluptuousness to curiosity to an acquired familiarity (volupte – porquoi – connaissance) (1.) Meaning, the shock and tingle of pleasure followed by wonder or inquiry, followed by a sense of seasoned knowing (not the verb savoir ‘to know’ facts, but connaitre, to know one’s friends, or the particulars of a language or a city, or Argentinean cuisine.) Connaitre is the kind of knowing that time temporarily dulls or distances but never truly obliterates so long as the machinery of consciousness remains hardwired to the nervous system.
It is important that the room is dark and that the pieces proceed in an improvised manner. We might begin to know a sound as a sensation cum certitude, but a moment latter a guttering tap or a solid block of drone from Drouin’s electronics obviates the spell of catch-and-release sensory storytelling that you’d begun to weave around that mere, tangible referent you’d half-slept your way into. Lapsing back into uncertainty, you feint at V or P, oscillating between the fresh renderings of sounds in space and the just-passed recollected echoes still hovering between battens, boards and an ear canal.
- ii. Remember more, knowing less
So you’re part of an active, thinking conduit that never really knows what it knows (savoir, just the facts ma’am, data as evidence) but acquires familiarities, not without the constant tugging, stretching or shrinking back and forth from scale to scale, state to state, direction to inflection; this a kind of workout for the nerves, “voluptuous” conditioning. And the delight, sitting there in the dark, is in not knowing what one knows, yet, in not knowing what one will know (really know, know all over again, “know in your bones”) one more time, as yet, just any minute now.
Walter Benjamin (referring to Charles Baudelaire via Marcel Proust via In Search of Lost Time and also Freud) wrote: “becoming conscious and leaving behind a memory trace are processes incompatible with each other within one and the same system” (2.) That is, the things we absorb we absorb without telling them to ourselves and the things we tell ourselves we scarcely absorb; childhood (all its great leaps of scale and definition included) in a nutshell. And much of what Drouin & Olsen do of course is about amplifying small incidents to large artefact, a formula that we listeners -curiously self-contained in the manner of hipster aficionados- reverse in the process of internalizing. The big room and long sentences of sound, made miniature keep narrowing in perception towards an impossible dwindling –down, disappearing receipt.
Here now a long passage from Gilles Deleuze’s, “What is Becoming?” referring to Alice in Wonderland, with its inexplicable expansions and contractions as Alice grows tiny or gigantic depending (like Proust) on eating something:
All these reversals as they appear in infinite identity have one consequence: the contesting of Alice’s personal identity and the loss of her proper name. The loss of the proper name is the adventure which is repeated throughout Alice’s adventures. For the proper or singular name is guaranteed by the permanence of savoir. The latter is embodied in general names designating pauses and rests, in substantives and adjectives, with which the proper name maintains a constant connection. Thus the personal self requires God and the world in general. But when substantives and adjectives begin to dissolve, when the names of pause and rest are carried away by the verbs of pure becoming and slide into the language of events, all identity disappears from the self, the world and God. This is the test of savoir and recitation which strips Alice of her identity. In it words go awry, being swept away by the verbs. (3)
What was I talking about again? Timing is all over the map in search of lost time, with some moments of conclusive cohesion (a grinding sound across the copper plate that goes etching where you knew it must, then rests) and other pockets of loss and awkwardness where I forget myself but feel I’m in familiar terrain just the same, a stepping-on-the-dog-in-the-dark overlap of what Marcel Proust dubbed ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary’ memory. Claude Levi-Strauss writes:
[…] uncontrolled memory is not simply opposed to conscious memory (which allows one to recall the past without reliving it). Uncontrolled memory breaks into the story line; it readjusts and restabilizes the composition, systematically altering the course and order of events. (4.)
Levi-Strauss argues that uncontrolled memory is not just a subject for Proust, it is integral to his technique; everything is written as it is thought of and ordering comes cut and pasted later. For Proust as a writer, this supplies a freedom not unlike music, substituting rhythmic reoccurrence for the common sense of conventional narrative, a freedom “that allows events or incidents belonging to different time periods to be evoked indiscriminately in the present.”
A prerequisite for what Olsen does in performance must be time spent in-between days listening for friction, and for Drouin, citing time signatures and sizing up intervals.
- iii. Practice meeting premise
In a previous existence, Olsen studied painting under teachers like Frank Auerbach and Howard Hodgkin, artists sometimes associated with a “School of London” painting. Though Auerbach, Lucien Freud, Leon Kossoff and Euan Uglow were notably lionized for maintaining figurative painting at a time when direct drawing from the body had all but vanished from North American art schools, this perspective is somewhat superficial. The salient character that unites the ‘abstract’ paintings of Hodgkin to the portraits of Auerbach is an investing in the relations between sensations found in the world and their digestion and processing through memory as enacted and rehearsed via a time-intensive rhythmic repetition. Local roots for this approach in the UK can be traced to the influence of Francis Bacon (who Olsen used to hear in lecture), and through Bacon, Paul Cezanne:
This is the general thread that links Bacon to Cezanne: to paint sensation or, as Bacon says, using words that loosely resemble Cezanne’s, to record the fact. “It’s a very, very close and difficult thing to know why some paint comes across directly onto the nervous system.”
When Bacon speaks of sensation, he means two things that are very close to what Cezanne meant. Negatively, he says that form as a it relates to sensation (figure) is the opposite of form as it relates to an object that form is supposed to represent (figuration) […] And positively, Bacon continually says that sensation is that which passes from one “order” to another, from one “level” to another, from one “domain” to another. (5.)
Imagine this transit of sensations, “swept away by verbs”, from one part of the body to another, surging or tapping or dully buzzing; throwing switches, loosening up stray particles like the half-collected residue of a morning dream floated in fits and starts brought up over breakfast. From Jacques Lacan:
Freud describes a dream as a certain knot, an associative network of analysed verbal forms that intersect as such, not because of what they signify, but thanks to a sort of homonymy. It is when you come across a single word at the intersection of three of the ideas that come to the subject that you notice that the important thing is that word and not something else. (6.)
In the case of a painting by Bacon, Auerbach or Hodgkin, there is always some sort of talisman related to the act of witness and experience that stands as token or testament between the world (as in the experience of a close room among strangers, or going for a walk in the street it foul weather) and the artist’s body in the act of painting: for Auerbach it is drawings made from repeated assignations with the same models, for Bacon it was photographs (“a dictionary of appearance”) combined with accidents (such as splattered paint) that “unlocked” a rendered figure with their incidental character, and funnelled through the white noise of compositional props like newspaper photographs, reproductions of other paintings, and film stills. This pattern of repetition and interference gestures towards an artificial deja vue that fruitfully confuses past, present and future, and in doing so conjures the homonymy that Lacan delineates as the stuff of dreams.
Conceive of the white noise and circulating overlap of sound, recall, and sensation in Drouin & Olsen’s work as a similar homonymy. Olsen’s tools are his crappy old guitar underfoot (a painterly instrument if ever there was one), his curls of wire and fistfuls of foil; his talisman or go-between is the copper plate that will later become the medium for his proclivities as a printmaker, literally a catcher of impressions. Drouin is (as anyone who’s met him can attest) a superb runner of interference, as tactful and tactical as they come and also a superb technical photographer. In his “Sketchbook Notes”, Jasper Johns imagines himself as two separate characters, each both actor and audience:
The watchman falls “into” the “trap” of looking. The spy is a different person.
“Looking” is and is not “eating” and “being eaten.”(Cezanne?- each object reflecting the other.) That is, there is a continuity of some sort among the watchman, the space, the objects. The spy must be ready to ‘move’ must be aware of his entrances and exits. The watchman leaves his job and takes away no information. The spy must remember and must remember himself and his remembering. (7.)
“Sounds in a Room” amount to echoes in a sound box or flickers on the wall of a camera obscura. Drouin and Olsen use the dialogic, player-and-audience relationship to simultaneously open up and interiorize mnemonic processing; their pointed division of labour neatly meeting the challenge of maintaining a separation of sound and song, so that their audience become sounding boards, co-producers. As John Cage notes:
What I am calling […] poetry […] is often called […] content
Hearing […] or making this […] in music […] is not different
- […] only simpler- […] than living this way […] .
[…] Simpler, that is […] , […] for me, – because it happens
[…] that I write music […] .(8.)
- Jonathan Mayne. “Introduction”, Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (New York: Phaidon, 2001) x.
- Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Edited by Hannah Arendt, Translated by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968) 160-161.
- Gilles Deleuze, “What is Becoming?”, The Deleuze Reader, Edited by Constantin V. Boundas (New York and Oxford: Columbia University Press, 1993) 41.
- Claude Levi-Strauss, “Looking at Poussin”, Look, Listen, Read, translation Brian J. Singer, (New York: HarperCollins, 1997) 7.
- Gilles Deleuze, “Painting and Sensation”, The Deleuze Reader, Edited by Constantin V. Boundas (New York and Oxford: Columbia University Press, 1993) 188.
- Jacques Lacan, “The Place, Origin and End of my Teaching”, My Teaching, Translated by David Macey, (New York and London: Verso, 2008) 28.
- Jasper Johns, “Sketchbook Notes,” quoted in John Yau, “The Mind and Body of the Dreamer,” Uncontrollable Beauty, edited by Bill Beckley with David Shapiro (New York: Allworth Press, 1998) 298
- John Cage, “2” from “Lecture on Nothing”, Poems for the Millennium, The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry, Volume 2, Edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Peter Joris (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: 1998) 415.