A sound crystallising between that of a harp and breaking glass. Yet like breaking bread – a soft generous activity shared with a mesmerised audience. Through the lungs, the mouth and teeth, the guttural intersection of the body, saliva and the saxophone; noises pushed and pulled the space; piercing yet delicate rhythms formed by soft tissues and tongue; then sudden sheiks from unseen sirens and invisible harmonic orchestras.
I offer this verbose account of Michel Doneda’s performance last week knowing that many such accounts of sonic art have been made; accounts in which language becomes a pantomime of the failure to adequately represent the ambiguous nature of experience. Especially that is, when artists avoid the accepted forms of representation (melodies, narratives, figures) that structure reality in an abstract, semantically viable way. One of my favourite discoveries in the Stirling University Archive, when we were preparing the Norman McLaren exhibition ‘Hand-made Cinema’ (McLaren being one of those artists who would place experimentation before any requirements to make sense) was a newspaper clipping that opened, ““BOINK! Kerplunk! Ploppity-squelch! Imagine a cow pulling its foot out of mud and set it to music. That’s the soundtrack. Now think of two skeleton chickens fighting during a firework display. There’s the picture – perhaps the strangest that’s ever been made.”
And listening to Edimpro, who performed a set before Doneda, and not wanting to reduce the complexity of the experience, I again found myself trying to give sense to the different sections and moods. Bernard Herman, who composed a lot of the Hitchcock sound-tracks and other weird sci-fi stuff, came to mind; as did William Burroughs – though not through direct association. I think through that post-war New York art scene I associate early experimental music to the literature of characters like Allen Ginsberg (who featured in some of Nam June Paik’s work) and other ‘beat’ writers. The shrill slides and occasional frenzy, the repetition of some sounds, made me think specifically of The Ticket that Exploded. This was the second book in a cut-up trilogy reflecting Burrough’s obsession with how technology was changing human consciousness. The fragmented nature of the book, with its vivid references to tape recordings as devices for hypnosis and assassination, seemed suitably foreboding, open and expansive to capture the ‘flavour’ of parts of the performance.
But maybe I’m trying too hard?
If it is a cliché to enact, as a drama, the difficulty of summarising in words an experimental performance; it is at least an interesting one. That it is a perennial concern shows – in my opinion – that artists are good at pointing us towards aspects of our existence that exceed or exist outside comprehension. And I’m not being mystical; and neither am I being uncritical. There is a definite limitation to what we can understand, linguistically, and sonic art is particularly good at showing us where that line is drawn. When Joe Banks spoke about his work in November, I found it refreshing that he offered an eloquent account of the historical references within the installation, ‘The Analysis of Beauty’, but then said that the explanation was really just misdirection, allowing him to justify something that was really much more “primal”.
As we’re now into the second thematic section of ‘gap in the air’, these are the kind of things I feel I’m learning and thinking about. I want to find ways to take these experiences further, to find out from the artists and academics we’re working with what to do with these ideas. Rather than reiterate the pitfalls of representing things in language, how do you refine your response? One of answers I’m sure will be, ‘listen to more stuff’. And with its international playlist, that’s what the reach section (throughout December) is all about.
James Clegg – Assistant Curator at Talbot Rice Gallery