A discursive look at how musical and visual culture continues to evolve alongside technology.
Just before lockdown, six groups of musicians came to a recording studio to sample (and respond to) six sculptures made by four artists (Mathilda Bennett-Greene, Joseph Bradley Hill, Angus McCrum & Jonas Pequeno). Each group had six hours to produce a track (or more), resulting in a 40 minute album featuring members of black midi, Goat Girl, Sorry, 404 Guild, Powerplant and Curl Recordings.
The recording (Late Works: of Noise) is the eighth in a series of live intermedia events by permutable arts collective Late Works. It is the second event that has been made in collaboration with fellow collective and record label Slow Dance. The limited edition vinyl will be released on Slow Dance Records on 18th December 2020.
This piece of writing is a sequence of utterances, an exercise in loose association focused on the way art and music have evolved parallel to technology since Luigi Russolo’s manifesto ‘The Art of Noises’, which inspired this event.
The Art of Noises
“We must break out of this limited circle of sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds.” – Luigi Russolo, The Art of Noises (1913)
Luigi Russolo wrote his manifesto ‘The Art of Noises’ in a letter addressed to futurist composer Francesco Balilla Pratella in 1913. It “present[ed] a new musical aesthetic, an aesthetic so audacious for its time that Russolo’s contemporaries (including even Igor Stravinsky) considered him merely an amusing eccentric. Yet his thesis was logical enough. If music is sound, why does[n’t] music employ all the varieties of sound? Why can[’t] music embrace sounds like those made by people and animals, the sounds of nature, the sounds of a modern industrial society? Thus, Russolo projected a music that would be compounded of the innumerable sounds of human existence.” – Barclay Brown, Monographs in Musicology No.6 (1987)
Russolo defined six ‘families’ of noise for which he built an orchestra of instruments that mimicked them (any other noises were “associations or combinations of these”):
1 – Roars, Thunderings, Explosions, Hissing Roars, Bangs & Booms.
2 – Whistling, Hissing & Puffing.
3 – Whispers, Murmurs, Mumbling, Muttering & Gurgling.
4 – Screeching, Creaking, Rustling, Humming, Crackling & Rubbing.
5 – Noises obtained by beating on metals, woods, skins, stones, pottery etc.
6 – Voices of animals and people, Shouts, Screams, Shrieks, Wails, Hoots, Howls, Death Rattles & Sobs.
(For Late Works: of Noise, we selected six of our own ‘families’ of musicians, with each group attributed to one of Russolo’s original six classifications, but we’d rather you made those associations yourself…)
Recently I watched ‘Ways of Listening’, a Zoom conversation presented by the theatre company Complicité with Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson, Nitin Sawhney & Simon McBurney which discussed the act of listening in modernity. Eno reflected on a change he saw happen in the last century:
“The 20th Century comes along and a transition happens in two art forms, one of them being music the other one being theatre. Theatre gave birth to film, and we call it something different. […] Music [(at this point being solely acoustic)] gave birth to a new form, this recorded electronic form, and we still call it music, and it’s confusing that we do, because actually it is made differently, heard differently and used differently by listeners. So in every dimension it is kind of a different art form.” -Brian Eno, Ways of Listening (2020)
Russolo planted the seeds for this shift with his noise orchestra. Through mimicking everyday sounds and integrating them into performance, his aim was to invigorate and innovate music. His process was a precursor to the proliferation of sampling we see now. It also predated the musique concrète of Pierre Schaeffer in the 1940s, a genre understood to be the beginning of sampling as we know it (Schaeffer spliced and looped varied tape recordings and rearranged them into new compositions). Luigi Russolo’s analogue approach to sampling set the bar for a new wave of artists to introduce everyday noise into their art. Once set in motion it took off, and as Eno says, developed music into a completely new medium. Sampling in its many forms has become a backbone of music and art, and forms the thread that runs through this piece.
Zang Tumb Tuuum
I’ve taken the title of this essay (Idea and love of “the record”) from Filippo Tomasso Marinetti’s thesis ‘Destruction of Syntax—Wireless Imagination—Words-in-Freedom’ (1913), which sought to remove traditional rules of syntax and grammar from our conversation, thinking and writing. In his thesis, Marinetti speaks of the various phenomena the world was transfixed on at the time of writing, the thirteenth being “The passion, art, and idealism of Sport. Idea and love of “the record.”” Although here “the record” refers to physical sporting achievement, I feel it is pertinent to the themes I will address in this writing, from our competitive “love of “the record”” (inside and outside of the art world—note Russolo’s use of the word “conquer” in the first quote of this text…) to the Idea of the “record” in its physical and digital (recorded) formats over the years.
Russolo directly quotes Marinetti’s famous Zang Tumb Tuuum in his manifesto, a piece from his parole-in-liberta (words-in-freedom). The words “Zang Tumb Tuuum” are part of Marinetti’s description of the Battle of Adrianople which he witnessed as a journalist in the First Balkan War. Wanting to involve the reader in a multi-sensory experience, Marinetti actualised sounds he experienced through onomatopoeic words and explosive typographic layout. The futurists (of which Russolo and Marinetti were members) were in favour of technological triumph—of human over nature—and wanted to integrate the industrial into art and the everyday; Zang Tumb Tuuum was an example of their progression in that direction. Russolo however wanted this intervention to be louder than the page:
“The ear of the eighteenth century man would not have been able to withstand the inharmonious intensity of certain chords produced by our orchestra […] [b]ut our ear takes pleasure in it, since it is already educated to modern life, so prodigal in different noises. Nevertheless, our ear is not satisfied and calls for ever greater acoustical emotions.” – Luigi Russolo, The Art of Noises (1913)
The sounds that arrived with the 20th century were that of the factory, the car, the gun and the plane. In 1908—2 years before Luigi Russolo joined the Futurists as a painter—the ‘tin Lizzie’ (Ford Model T) was the first automobile to be released to the public. Russolo speaks of the impact these machines had on him and the world: “This evolution of music is comparable to the multiplication of machines, which everywhere collaborate with man.” – Luigi Russolo, The Art of Noises (1913). This multiplication he speaks of is still occurring at an exponential rate and has shaped the way that we work and live today… our phones accompany us everywhere and feed infinite aural and visual noise directly into our heads. We can slip into revolving around them, incorporating them into our daily routines, allowing them to wake us up in the morning and tell us when to go to sleep at night.
“We can now control and tailor our audio environment to most whatever we desire it to be – in any space we find ourselves. Yet those spaces—outside, in the street—remain noisy as ever.” – Damon Krukowski, Ways of Hearing (2019)
John Cage liked to keep his windows open as much as possible. He believed the most beautiful sound was silence, but that that “silence” nowadays is traffic, due to it being the predominant ambient sound in the majority of the world. He found it beautiful that the sound of traffic never repeats. The car has been around for over 112 years now (almost 92,000,000 cars were made in 2019) and the proliferation of technology means that our domestic soundscape is more varied and physically closer to us.
This escalation of noise can be correlated with the rise of the commute. Affordable housing has been pushed out to the fringes of cities (gentrification), which means more cars and more people polluting public space (think Koyaanisqatsi). On public transport, commuters distract themselves from the outside noise with the (seemingly) personal noise of their phones. In turn, corporations want to occupy as much of this distraction time as possible, to profit from our attention…
The Loudness War
We are in the middle of “the loudness war”: In a bid to grab our attention, songs have been getting exponentially louder since the 1940s. Older songs are remastered to match the volume of the year, and instructional videos encourage you to push the volume up to “compete” with other songs on the market. This can reduce the quality of the recording because compression is needed to achieve a higher volume. Grayson Perry writes, after discussing artists that have simultaneously embraced the progress of art and technology, from Nam June Paik to Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz: “art now follows technology rather than leading it; art is struggling to keep up. In many ways technology is more cutting edge than art.” It could be said that art (on a global scale) isn’t struggling in itself, but technology is accelerating at such an absurd rate that it is difficult to keep up. Here are some examples of how this latency between technology and art & music can be seen:
—Visually, in mobile content, think of those irritating miniature-spoiler-trailers-at-the-beginning-of-trailers; Images are being flashed in front of you twice, simply to catch your eye the first time around (and to stop you from skipping ahead to the next image that is being rushed past you). This trend started happening in around 2016 (the general consensus seems to be with Jason Bourne) and is now a commonplace tactic. Artworks are being given less and less attention because technology has shortened our attention span to a point where the pacing seems very slow. “Research reveals that the average gallery-goer spends [only] eight seconds looking at an artwork” – Ted Targett, Onlooking – Kupfer Projects (2020). Users constantly want to know how long they have left so they are aware of their commitment [Skip Intro], as platforms have become war grounds where content competes for our dwindling attention.
—Aurally, this latency can be heard where producers place a song’s “hook” (or unrelated catchy couple of bars) in the first few seconds of a song to prevent you from skipping. If you go back to the 70s you can see the seed of this in tracks by producer Nile Rodgers (Chic – Le Freak, David Bowie – Let’s Dance, Sister Sledge – We Are Family & more recently Daft Punk – Get Lucky): “If the hook is the part everyone is going to sing, let’s do it first.” In the 70s, Nile Rodgers was making a song catchier for radio plays, but now technology has escalated to a point where some artists are being forced to do it if they want to be heard on these digital platforms at all.
Fair Use and the Future of Art
We are becoming increasingly dependent on our devices as extensions of our minds, a digital memory tucked away in our pockets (think Derek Zoolander trying to get files out of the computer). We playlist thousands of songs and struggle to remember their titles without seeing the artwork: Spotify recently added a feature where the album covers are displayed next to the track names—they realise that they have left their users reliant on the visual impulse. Whilst this acknowledgment is positive in the sense that art is being intertwined with music and the two are experienced as one, it has become less about understanding and discovering the music and its creators, and more about keeping you glued to the app. We bookmark artworks, pdfs and websites to be seen at a later date, but distractions often make these links forgotten about. The act of saving information is a tantalising exercise which allows us to compile endless information, that we will never have time to read. This keeps us hooked on our devices with promises of knowledge which are never fulfilled.
The internet (which has its own memory: around 13% of links will ‘die’ from ‘linkrot’ every year) is a mutual brain accessible to anyone with the right resources. The sheer expanse of this shared brain causes many to fear originality; With the overwhelming mass of content we consume, we believe we can’t make anything unique. The concept of originality however is mere illusion (although we must not disregard cultural appropriation), as Grayson Perry opines “originality is for people with short memories”. John Cage reiterates this in an interview, stating that everything is original because it is perpetually seen in a new light—a new time and space. Our environment is constantly in flux, so now it is more about altering our perception of what we are experiencing. Cage actively sought to forget—to not remember—so that his new experiences were more vivid and he could appreciate the originality of the everyday. Quoting Amy Adler in her paper ‘Fair Use and the Future of Art’:
“We used to think of an artist as someone who sat in nature or in his garret, working alone to create something new from the whole cloth. But now that we are bombarded by images, the most important artist may be the one who can sift through other people’s art (or trash), the one who functions like a curator, and editor, or even a thief. In a world with a surfeit of images, perhaps the greatest artist is not the one who makes an image but the one who knows which image to take: to sort through the sea of images in which we are now drowning and choose the one that will float.” -Amy Adler, Fair Use and the Future of Art (2016)
Like Kenneth Goldsmith (founder of UbuWeb) “I prefer Adler’s choice of the word ‘choosing’ to the overused word ‘curating’. Curating gets us back into the realm of certainty, expertise, exclusivity, and assuredness.” – Kenneth Goldsmith, UbuWeb: An Accidental Archive, OnCurating Issue 44 (2020). This act of filtering the images we are exposed to, having been shaped by our time living on the internet, is like a new medium, a transition from “art” into something else, a new form that we don’t have a universal term for yet (like the new digital form of music Brian Eno was speaking of). It harks back to the advent of collage, when the “bombardment of imagery” Adler speaks of was printed matter and advertisements. Artists (from the Dadaists to Andy Warhol, whom Adler is referencing in her quote) would cut up and recompose these as works of art. The printed matter they chose always came from someone else: another artist or publisher or advertising company—the “other”. Now the open source format of the internet enables its users to be simultaneously producing and consuming the imagery that they are collaging together. Mark Leckey expands on this in an interview:
“As an artist you’re looking for some kind of autonomy, essentially. You’re looking to make yourself sovereign. I want to do all of it. But not in a megalomaniac way… it just seems necessary. This feels more urgent now because machines are teaching us to be like this – by giving us more opportunities and tools. Essentially it’s about cutting out middle men, which is also the logic of the internet. In the virtual world you do everything yourself. You’re a producer, you’re a consumer, you can do everything. Obviously that can be quite frightening, as it’s destabilising for the art world as we know it – and I don’t know if I want an art world without professional curators. Yet, I want to become both producer and consumer, maker and viewer.” – Mark Leckey, The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, Nottingham Contemporary (2013)
The algorithm is trying to beat us at choice too, but as Goldsmith says:
“An algorithm isn’t capable of sensibility; it can’t replicate the capriciousness of human taste. When accretion isn’t mandated to proceed by logical order, other narratives become possible. Alternative or folk models of gathering—jumble sales, boot sales, garage sales, flea markets, time capsules – represent a new type of archive for the precise reason that machines still are not capable of gathering artifacts in perversely illogical and intuitive ways.” – Kenneth Goldsmith, UbuWeb: An Accidental Archive, OnCurating Issue 44 (2020)
Two of my favourite algorithm-based websites everynoise.com and radio.garden thrive because they demand the interaction of the viewer, they aim to show you absolutely everything, leaving you to sift through the noise. We are now the crate diggers, the flea market goers—the gleaners (see Agnes Varda’s Les glaneurs et la glaneuse) who—like the Surrealists finding their dream objects in flea markets—can re-appropriate these objects (both physical and digital, aural and visual) for new functions.
This is an ethos shared by the Late Works: of Noise artists:
Mathilda Bennett-Greene creates tools for a speculative utopian society using objects and materials found in our dystopian landscape, proposing new use values through this act of repurposing. Bennett-Greene’s ‘Of Tool Set’ fuses together a diverse range of materials into an in-between state of (un)familiarity and (non-)functionality. Echoes of popular instruments invite an exciting yet dissonant approach from the user.
Joseph Bradley Hill’s practice surrounds themes of permutation, participation, communication & interpretation and the curiosity that can be harvested from physical and digital waste. His instrument ‘Arms & Legs’ is a human-like assemblage made from objects found on flâneuristic walks. It confronts the user and invites them to sit and play with its various appendages.
Angus McCrum‘s assemblages, carvings, collages and found objects attempt to scrape back some kind of meaning beyond their status as artworks in a system of value and exchange. His piece ‘Cast from the Track’ is made from a found javelin, snapped in half like our ancestors broke weapons and discarded them into lakes as offerings.
Jonas Pequeno is interested in the transformative nature of sound and its intersection with language, exploring concepts around semiotics, absurdism and technological intervention. ‘n/a’ is a quasi-autonomous drum machine that plays itself in a metronomic fashion, requiring input from the user to utilise the rest of its noise-potential. The invasive metronome acts as another entity in the room, forcing the user to bend to its will (unless they turn it off…).
The sculptures together in the studio—like versatile stones in a prehistoric cave—create a unit that invites primal interactions from its users. Removed from the safety of their everyday instruments, the musicians are forced to experiment and play, gleaning lyrics and inspiration from the forms.
Late Works: of Noise
The LP was recorded at Slow Dance between the 25th & 29th February 2020—the studio rules were as follows:
1. Musicians may only bring things that modify sound, not make sound themselves.
2. Vocals are allowed, but any lyrics must be written in the studio time.
3. The tracks must only use noise sampled from the sculptures and the voice.
4. The tracks must be completed within each respective six hour session.
Late Works is a permutable collective of artists, musicians, film-makers, writers and dancers who populate a nomadic series of live intermedia events of the same name. Since September 2018, over 135 artists have collaborated with founder Joseph Bradley Hill to put on 8 different events across London, alongside their monthly radio show on Resonance Extra. Initially aiming to examine the concept of the gesamtkunstwerk, Late Works has developed into a set of heavily process-based experimental events united by an ethos of indeterminate intermedia improvisation.
Words by Joseph Bradley Hill