As Voicelanding – Exploring the scenographic potential of acoustic sound in site-sensitive performance is a multi-disciplinary research project, its significance resides in several fields and those they overlap and interact with. I see this research project as a contribution to the fields of scenography, music composition, new music theatre, choral performance, sound art and vocal performance art. It is a spatial practice that is connected to the fields of architecture, choreography and installation art.
My artistic practice is situated in the in-between. This in-between is a zone that gathers attentiveness and inter-action. At its heart lies the idea of interplay. It is a togetherness that is founded in play. This playfulness includes curiosity, the joy in exploration, free exchange and the spark that new connections give. There is a clear sense of direction when playing. While the rules develop during the practice, they are related to intuition, and they have the tendency to open things up rather than closing them down.
The core exploration of this research project is that of the relationship between acoustic sound and space in the creation of a live performance on site. The surrounding fields (such as sound art, choreography, vocal performance art, music composition and architecture) have opened themselves up to me as I developed my own spatial practice. The attentive interaction with spaces that I cultivate in my practice initiates the creative process and is the beginning for my creative works. Its result, a sonic scenography that is also a musical performance/spatial sound performance, is most likely at home in the field of new music theatre. However, in order to give this music the reading of that of a sonic scenography - as a shapeshifting space created with sound - it needs to be differentiated, and the process of how it is created needs to be acknowledged.
All senses are involved in the creation and experience of my sonic scenographies. Even though sound requires functioning ears to be detected, ears have their limits as receptors and information gatherers. Pauline Oliveros expands these limitations when she reminds us that “sound beyond the limits of the ear may be gathered by other sensory systems of the body” (Oliveros, 2005, p.19). Wassily Kandinsky supports this trust in the senses, including intuition, when he claims that for the composition of free forms one is “still completely dependent upon feeling” (Kandinsky and Rebay, 1979, p.91). What counts for the creator, counts for the recipient. The audience is in my work participant and as such “in the center of an active experience”, as Yolande Harris suggests (Harris, 2014, p.30).
The negotiation of the space with other members of the audience, in relation to one’s own explorative mode, puts them into the context of the site and inside the sonic scenography that not only develops around them but that is created in consideration of them. A sensible landscape of sound in interaction with its environment can be explored here. But as much as the sonic scenography is created as an audible form of scenography that is a shared experience, as it moves around and one moves through and with it, the experience is individual. And as John Cage suggests, “the activity of movement, sound and light, we believe, is expressive, but what it expresses is determined by each one of you” (Cage and Gann, 2013, p. 95).
This brings us back to the idea of play. Playing is a way to go beyond ourselves and to interact with the unknown. In ‘Divisions underground’ Pauline Oliveros writes that “the greatest obstacle to understanding is the mind, which judges solely on the evidence of past knowledge. Such a mind is lost in a new situation, which then becomes impossible” (Oliveros, 2015, p.103). Sound can be a great tool to experience through. As it is transitory, it asks us to be attentive in the moment, and helps us to appreciate change. Supported by the responses of a space, sound stimulates the listener to follow it in its short life, during which it makes other things apparent through its invisible fluid body.
As sound interacts with its surrounding it acts similarly to the line that Kandinsky describes in his book Point and Line on a Plane. “Each kind of line seeks the appropriate external means to enable it to attain the shape necessary at the moment and, specifically, on the general basis of economy: the minimum effort for the maximum result” (Kandinsky and Rebay, 1979, p.109). Sound performs with the space and when we follow it with our senses and include our memory, ephemeral forms appear.
The building of a sonic scenography is also a learning to listen. Through sounding and listening in equal measures spatial sound composition is enabled. At the Resonate conference in Lisbon in 2018, Bill Fontana said in his opening speech that “active listening is a way of composing” (MAAT, Lisbon, Portugal, 12.02.2018). I was intrigued by this thought, since his displaced audio-visual live streams were installed in such a way that one had to move around in the gallery space. His composition of sound and images asked the visitor to compose through listening (also with the eyes) as one moved through it. I don’t know if that was what he intended but for me this recognition of an audience’s composition through the way they perceive felt close to my approach towards the audience.
Max Neuhaus described a composing through listening from the perspective of the creator. He writes of “building the sound, placing the first sound in a space, beginning the journey – the first sound leads to another sound leads to another sound – you’re in motion” (Neuhaus et al., 1995, p.2). I also need a space in order to learn more about a sound and to understand more about how to work with it. Working on site requires making a response to the architectural space and the social context. Nick Kaye describes this relation between things as actions and events that are affected by their “local position, by the situation of which they are a part” (Kaye, 2013, p.1).
To create site-sensitive spatial sound compositions requires an embodied practice. Embodied musical creation is also an aspect of the work of Meredith Monk and Pauline Oliveros. Meredith Monk has used her body as a guide for her vocal explorations and her musical composition. Analogous to this, she calls the workshops she gives ‘Dancing Voice/Singing Body’ (Monk, n.d.). In both her listening practice and teaching, Pauline Oliveros encouraged musicians and composers to follow their own voice in the composition of music and to trust their intuition when improvising. Her faith in embodied knowledge and the connection that we have to our surrounding through our senses has been in accordance with the way that I sense correspondences between sound and space when creating sonic scenographies.
My work within the field of opera started in 2013 with Folkoperan in Stockholm. It initiated my exploration of the scenographic potential of acoustic sound (refer to Schnitzler’s Dreams). The physical presence of acoustic sound, the directness of the unamplified voice and the touch of sound that can be activated more concretely through the varying of the distance to the audience fascinated me. My deliberate collaboration with the surrounding came from my investigation of opera performance as an outsider to it, as I am trained as a scenographer and director for theatre and film. I would not directly situate my work within the field of opera, because in classical opera the goal is still to overcome acoustic challenges rather than to use them. The genre has, however, been an inspiration to me and opera performers have been my dialogue partners during this research. Heiner Mueller wrote about opera that it “cannot constitute anything new without renewing itself” (Müller and Schneider, 2014, p.25). He saw a great potential in opera in that “what one may not be able to say yet, may be possible to sing” (Müller and Schneider, 2014, p.24). In his opinion, if opera were to become a democratic genre “the music would discuss with the audience”. This would require new approaches to music as new tools for communication. The negotiation within the exploration of my spatial sound compositions can be seen as an activation of this democratic possibility for live music. I join Heiner Mueller in his hope for the future of opera and the possibility for opera to be a part of the future, as the singing voice “anticipates a better world” (Müller and Schneider, 2014, p.25). With these capacities and handicaps in mind, opera is a part of the surrounding that I negotiate my research within and its younger sibling music theatre is a territory that spatial sound performance is closely related to.
Connections from my work to music that is distributed in space can be made. For example, Sabrina Hölzer created a concertante opera-installation of Die Vögel by Walter Braunfels (2009) where the singers were elevated onto different levels in the space for a seated audience. In Iannis Xenakis’ Terretektorh 88 instrumentalists were scattered among its audience. My spatial sound performances expand the flexibility that was introduced in these works. My sonic scenographies are positioned and put into motion with the movement of the performers and their instruments. Moreover, the audience moves inside the performance space and they position themselves in the way they desire.
Sonic scenography and spatial sound performance are the construction of a musical architecture. This includes the natural interaction and decay of acoustic sound, and it activates interaction with all elements in the space. The shape-shifting scenography not only holds the performance but is the performance. In this way it differs not only from installation-concert forms but also from music theatre forms that still include characters and story. The sonic scenographies are narratives of their own. Musical compositions such as György Ligeti’s piece for an orchestra Atmosphères (1961) can be linked to this category. Its micropolyphonic textures give the impression of journeying through a foreign world. If a choreography sensitive to site and in consideration of the spatial transformation of sound was created for this piece, it could turn into a sonic scenography.
A scenography that performs and creates music can be found in Heiner Göbbels’ performative Installation Stifters Dinge (2007). Performed by a nature-machine, there are no human actions beside the theatre technicians who activate some theatre elements to let them perform. That the story by Adalbert Stifter is told from the human perspective is of significance, however, especially in the absence of human performers. In my work the human performers are a part of the sonic scenography, it performs with and through them. Their interaction is what makes the sonic scenography spatial and accessible. The worlds that I create are co-created with the space, and all sound is dependent on the space. This world is one in movement, a sonic space that is on a journey. Its process is enabled by the collaboration between the instrumentalists and the fixed space, and the wandering audience.
As this worlding unfolds in relation, it gives the performer the responsibility and joy to explore the composed material with and for the audience anew, in relation. In that way the performance of spatial sound compositions resembles immersive theatre. In immersive performances (for example by the Danish ensemble Signa or the performance Satan’s triologi by Jimmy Meurling, Py Huss-Wallin and Andreas Blom), the audience enters a scenario that is usually created site-specifically. In these interactive performances the audience explores the performance in parallel to the characters. Sometimes audience members get a role to play in the performance. The audience is able to make choices, even to ‘disobey’, which may lead to ‘adverse’ consequences. In my experience of this kind of performance I find it interesting that no matter how interactive a performance may be, there is no equality between the performer and the audience. The roles are different. In my works I choose to treat care as a common responsibility between performer and audience. It takes different forms in the different roles but is for both sides related to the fragility of acoustic sound. The feeling of safety and trust are established by the caring presence of the performers in the space and the embrace of the sonic scenography.
Another form of immersion happens during music performances in darkness. The impression that we experience sound more intensely when we close our eyes is strongly connected to this form. These music performances can be acoustic, like Sabrina Hölzer’s Dark was the Night, where the audience lies on individual platforms in the darkness and the musicians move around them. Or they can be acousmatic music installations with loudspeakers distributed in the space. What is lost here is the witnessing of the interaction between the instrumentalists and the space in the creation of spatial sound expression. In the way that the performers relate to the space and take care of the audience, the sonic scenography gains its spatial presence and its social spectrum.
Another important point is for me that the physicality of the sound creation is visible. Here I like to remember seeing my first performance of a Helmut Lachenmann piece, Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern - music with images, where the creation of the sound that the orchestra was making was visible for the audience. Helmut Lachenmann also has his instrumentalists play their instruments in unusual ways. The body is presented as that which creates sounds in collaboration with or manipulation of the instrument. In the audience for Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern - music with images, the sound became more tactile to me when simultaneously seeing how the sounds are created.