quinta-feira, 4 de junho de 2020

Nature's on fire!

photo by Greenpeace

The New York Times is a commendable newspaper, despite having its moments. We all do, but this does not mean that these moments shouldn't be examined, if and when they are detected. Specially if they seem to reveal something more beneath the surface.
An interestingly titled article popped up yesterday in my inbox from the NYT' morning summary. It talked about nature and essential field recordings.
This is a vital area for me, something in which I have been involved for over 40 years, you can imagine it did ring some bells. The NYT has produced commendable articles focusing on the problem of noise and the importance of the acoustic environment, so I hoped this one would be along these lines. We need as much press as possible for these causes.
I jumped into the article and immediately noticed that some of the most important pioneers in this field were absent, although contemporary and well respected names were indeed included. 12 recordings were listed, deemed as "essential listening", produced by people that have systematically or occasionally used sound recording to document nature, for their artistic projects or some other purpose. Of these, ca. 50% include the sounds such as those of Midwest casinos, empty rooms of Chernobyl, natural vibrations of pipes, bottles, fences, and other "natural" gems.
Absent from this list of essentials were pioneer composers and sound ecologists from the Canadian World Soundscape Project, founding members of the French GRM (although Luc Ferrari comes to the rescue with a piece that includes such natural and essential sounds as "bicycle bells (and) puttering boat motors",) prominent people like Bernie Krause, and literally hundreds of names of people that have dedicated their lives throughout the world to preserving the natural acoustic environment by recording it extensively.
This is an important topic. Why does the sound of the natural environment matters? Field recording is a key component in answering to this question and an essential tool in the environmental struggle. A list of self-entitled essential field recordings of the natural world should thus be based on clear criteria and the product of a much more carefully selected set of choices. Absent from the article is a call for the importance of the act of listening and an invitation to pay attention to the natural acoustic environment. I wonder why the author titled his piece "Need More Nature? Listen to 12 Essential Field Recordings" (my italics.) Of course we need more nature, but whatever the concept of nature Mr. Weingarten exactly had in mind, it may be the reason why so many people keep their eyes closed to the fact that the natural world is on fire today.

quarta-feira, 18 de setembro de 2019

Noise, panels and Ferraris

# 1 You open, say, a restaurant. You want to make a living. 
# 2 You don’t care about noise, to your architects and interior designers this is not even an issue.
# 3 What you all care is simply to make a living. 
# 4 Most of your patrons don’t care about noise either, and behave like jerks. You give a helping hand by playing loud music through the PA. Food poisoning by sound starts to happen.
# 5 Some of your clients and even your staff complain. 
# 6 Noise abatement rules are not being followed.
# 7 Apps show that your restaurant is not totally hip anymore.
# 7 You start to lose business.
# 8 You still don’t care, most of your patrons don’t care, but noise suddenly became a problem. 
# 9 Not simply a problem but a serious obstacle to your success. Yet, no one seems willing to change their behavior, to care about the issue in hand and take some serious measures.
# 10 You just wanted to make a living, stuffing your clients with food and loud music. The designers wanted to make a living.
# 11 Someone who did care about noise discovers a miracle “panel" that supposedly solves your problem.
# 12 Noise is still an issue – the sound sources are still the same and nobody really cares. But now there's less reverb. The panels disguised the acoustic stench.
# 13 The situation didn’t change: most of the patrons are still behaving like jerks, the restaurant is a living muzak hell, but now there’s less reverb and someone’s making a pile of money with that trick.
# 14 You'll loose more and more business, but the genius who invented the panel is buying a Ferrari.
This is probably also a valid metaphor for today's environmental policies.

(photo by https://svnrestaurants.com/why-restaurants-became-so-loud-and-how-to-fight-back/)

domingo, 18 de fevereiro de 2018

Climbing a flight of sounds

I cannot pinpoint what exactly drives me so strongly to write about Joana Gama's concerts. It may be the beauty of her sound, the repertoire she chooses to play or the often defying circumstances she accepts to perform it. Her rendering of Satie's Vexations was a recent, hard to describe tour de force that I will forever recall.
Today's concert at the  National Pantheon in Lisbon was the new challenge to which she courageously submitted herself.
First off the magnificently selected and carefully ordered works. Satie's Quatre Ogives could very well be the National Pantheon official hymn, instead of that totally unacceptable Beethoven Muzak played through a despicable PA before the concert, maybe in an effort to "set" the mood.
I am also sure that Satie (had he been able to finally listen to his organ-piano today) found this particular version, played at this particular site, the very epitome of this work.
Cage's 4'33" was played exactly as originally requested by the composer without any tricks or in any strange versions. The National Pantheon, I am positive, never sounded like this!
Feldman's Palais de Mari closed the program. Satie's beautiful Quatre Ogives sketched and probed the place. Cage's classic responded echoing the still sounding acoustic signature of the Pantheon, while the shadow of the Ogives chords kept roaming the room. Feldman's Palais made use of all these collected materials and combined them. The listener could finally be able to find a narrative in all this, were one willing to listen.
The National Pantheon has a special significance, being the burial ground of some major figures of Portuguese history, along with some controversial others. There is a general atmosphere of respect albeit not of a religious nature. By enhancing its acoustic qualities in this non-sacred but also certainly non-profane way, this concert created an unexpected link between the elements that permanently inhabit this space and those that happened to have crossed it today.
Finally, Joana Gama has chosen to exhibit her qualities in this unquestionably challenging atmosphere, demonstrating yet again, apart from her obviously outstanding musical qualities, a courage and stamina that seem to be her trademark.

(foto A.ClaudiaB.Cruz)

segunda-feira, 15 de janeiro de 2018

Running a marathon while standing still

I first came across Satie's Vexations in the early 70s, through an article John Cage wrote about a concert he'd organized, where the piece was played in its entirety. It was I think a world first. I remember his remark that throughout the entire 24 hour or so concert, there was always at least one person in the audience.
All these years later I finally had the opportunity to listen to a performance of Vexations. Portuguese pianist Joana Gama played it at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon.
It is very difficult to find words to describe Vexations. One could mention Satie's ever present humor, both in the musical content, in the structure and in the idea of repeating a simple musical phrase 840 times. Humor is also present in the way the upper chords seem to smudge the intriguing theme, hiding it and thus making it even more intriguing.
But the musical aspects are probably the least interesting characteristics of Vexations. To me the most distinctive aspect of this piece is the unusual time and listening experience it provides. Few composers dared dealing with time and listening the way Satie did in this piece written in the 19th century...
I am not sure if Satie was at all familiar with Max Plank's quantum theory, let alone Niels Bohor's interpretation of it, when he wrote Vexations. But the idea that a particle doesn't have any properties until it is observed and measured applies perfectly to Vexations. 

Time becomes real. The experience of listening to Vexations, to its simple musical components and to listen to each repetition in sequence, reveals time, builds time. It does not measure time, it produces time.
Simultaneously it provides a fascinating listening experience. In the performing space, Vexations slowly becomes a soundmark (to use R. Murray Schafer's terminology) after a number of repetitions. Against it the dynamics of surrounding acoustic environment evolve. Every sound, every whisper, cough, cell phone ringing, child running or chair dragged is measured against the "acoustic reference" that the piece becomes after a while, thus determining the balance or lack of it of the particular acoustic environment in which the piece is being performed.

In time with each repetition, a quite delicate set of acoustically mediated, ever changing, relations is produced. No repetition is the same however immaculately it is performed. As it was the case here.
Vexations functions, in a way, like an installation. But it is based on the tension building fact that it is being performed under daunting conditions by a human being. It is this seeming contradiction that provides such a unique experience.
If it is difficult to find words to translate the experience of listening to Vexations, it is virtually impossible to praise successfully and to adequately express my admiration for the performer. 

Performing Vexations is like running an ultra marathon. It involves the exact same physical strength. the same discipline, the same courage. 
However instead of running, the performer has to keep as still as possible, stay focused and exert an unbelievable amount of restraint during the 14 hours or so that the piece lasted.
I will never be able to adequately praise Joana Gama or express the admiration that she deserves.

segunda-feira, 19 de setembro de 2016

TMIE: On the threshold of the outside world

No, it is not a typo. TMIE stands for Transmembrane Inner Ear. It is a gene, active in the formation of the cochlea and then present in its tissues. It is part of the complex mechanism of electro-mechanical transduction of the sound into the auditory nerve.
Problems in TMIE may lead into deafness. The role of this protein, under normal circumstances, is to mediate the passage of the outside acoustic environment — what we call sound, i.e., the variations of air pressure that reach our ear – into the auditory nerve and then into the auditory cortex of the brain, where this information will be processed.
TMIE is the title of this work, a symbol of our connection between our outside world and our inner selfs.
In this opera two goddesses, from two different mythologies, have an improbable meeting and talk about their personal worlds. Meretseger, she who loves silence, unravels what is behind this silence. Selene, who drives her silver chariot through the skies, vibrates to the beats of the stars. Corypheaus listens to the impossible dialog and tries to interpret it.
These three characters represent real people.
Meretseger is Beverly Biderman,  the Canadian woman, deaf since she was 12 years old, received her cochlear implants at 46 and recovered her hearing. She wrote about her "journey into hearing" in the book "Wired for Sound". Selene is Henrietta Leavitt, the American astronomer. She discovered what George Johnson, the author of her biography, rightfully described as an extraordinary feat: how to measure the Universe. Henrietta was deaf but through photometry she was able to "listen" to the rhythms and sounds of the stars. Corypheaus is the Greek Pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles. He searched for the essencial categories of the Universe and was the creator of the first theory of the ear and hearing. The ear: a bell, a fleshy twig.
We relate to our surrounding inner and outer environment. After we decode what these environments signal to us, what are we left with? Consciousness? Free will? Soul?
Francis Crick suggests that a part of our brain is occupied planning future action. We are conscious of the decisions that we make, not the planning itself.
Did Henrietta Leavitt really listen to the stars? "We hear with our brain" says Biderman. Her conchlear implants produced a "trick of the mind" through which she was able to hear again. "I don't hear like you" she further noticed. Who can in fact tell what Beverly Biderman can hear? How can she know what each one of us really hears?

(TMIE premiered on September 8th, 2016, in Lisbon at the O'culto da Ajuda. The libretto is available here.)

quarta-feira, 31 de agosto de 2016

New opera about the spiral

"TMIE, on the threshold of the outside world" is a new opera written and produced by Carlos Alberto Augusto. It features admirable Portuguese soprano Marina Pacheco who will premier it on September 8th, at the O'culto da Ajuda, in Lisbon.
The work stems from the books of Beverly Biderman "Wired fro Sound: a journey into hearing" and George Johnson "Miss Leavitt's Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe", and excerpts from Empedocles and Portuguese poet Antero de Quental.
Biderman is the Canadian woman who after a long period of profound deafness received cochlear implants and described her new experience trying to learn again how to hear. In her description we learn how we first gained that capacity in the first place. Henrietta Leavitt is the astronomer, also deaf, who produced the ground work that allowed us to measure the universe while she listened to the beat of the stars. Empedocles is the Greek philosopher who produced the first know theory about the ear and hearing. They are the characters of this story.
Deafness is indeed a thread in the narrative but TMIE tries to address other questions, namely the relation between the outside world (our surroundings, our own personal interior environment) and the inner world of our thoughts, our consciousness, dare I say our soul. From the spirals of the cochlea to the spirals of the galaxies
Marina Pacheco, the soprano, sings three different roles in this production which also features an all electronically produced music track (the Kyma system was used entirely for this production), based upon the composer's version of roulette curves applied to sound parameters. This is played through a 10 speaker system which creates the acoustic space of the opera. The performance space is defined by a specially produced video, designed to serve as setting and lighting.
Here you'll find additional information about the work.
After the premier "TMIE" will be touring some venues both in Portugal and abroad.

terça-feira, 20 de janeiro de 2015

The days go by...

The Leg-irons
(from the Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh)

With hungry mouth open like a wicked monster,
Each night the irons devour the legs of people:
The jaws grip the right leg of every prisoner:
Only the left is free to bend and stretch.
Yet there is one thing stranger in this world:
People rush in to place their legs in irons.
Once they are shackled, they can sleep in peace.
Otherwise they would have no place to lay their heads.

The Prison Song

quarta-feira, 22 de outubro de 2014

The evolution of pleasure

"A principle of evolution is that in general, if something feels good, evolution must have made it so - evolution must have provided a reward mechanism for synchronized movement and music making, in the same way that evolution provided mechanisms of reward when we eat and have sex." (The World in Six Songs, Daniel J. Levitin)

quarta-feira, 20 de agosto de 2014

Listen to the Listeners

This brilliantly produced program is a must-listen. 
The Listeners (series 1 and 2) is a BBC radio documentary about people whose profession is based on listening or use sound as a tool. An absolute gem, definitely one of the most fascinating pieces of radio documentary I have listened to in ages.
Is listening important? Are there still doubts?
Listen to this. I rest my case.

segunda-feira, 3 de fevereiro de 2014

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville

Listen to a Brief History of the Waveform here. Recording sound before Protools? Yes, fascinating. How was that even possible...?
Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville got it for the first time.

quinta-feira, 3 de outubro de 2013

Required reading

Gary Burton, the bold conservative. No musician, aspiring musician, music lover or jazz aficionado in particular, should skip reading this book

Gary spares no words...

quinta-feira, 16 de maio de 2013

Arts funding, Europe and America

The European crisis is old, probably as old as Europe itself. The euro crisis is but one of its most recent signals. However, amidst its long trail of debris, "for quite a few American jazz musicians," as Gary Burton writes here, "it can often seem that they are more appreciated in Europe than they are at home." On the other hand, as Gary further recognizes, "European society also makes a greater commitment to supporting the arts". 
What went wrong with us after all?

Tomorrow I’ll be at the Estoril Jazz Festival attending your concert, Gary, also conscious of its political message...