Michael Duch and Jeremy Welsh
Repetition plays a central role in many musical styles and genres. Repetition, rhythm, and pattern also play an important part in the visual arts. Here we will show, examine, and discuss repetition as a method and main musical element, as well as its correlation with moving images, in a series of audio-visual works we have been working on together since 2016.
Accumulator is one such project and will be the main focus here. In it, repetition, rhythm, and pattern appear not only as musical and visual elements, but are used as artistic methods in themselves when repeating performances of a similar material, documenting each one of them and adding the individual performances as layers to create a dense audio-visual, orchestral solo performance.
Horse Sings from Cloud is part of a trilogy of musical works we have been working on and that will be discussed here. It is a video where Pauline Oliveros’ composition from 1971 is performed while images filmed from moving trains are projected onto the performer. It is an audio-visual interpretation of Oliveros’ score, consisting of the following three sentences:
“Hold a tone until you no longer want to change the tone. When you no longer want to change the tone then change to another tone. Dynamics are free.”
Opus 17a is a video of Hanne Darboven’s first of four opuses from the composer’s monumental 1008-page Wünschkonzert (1984). It can be described as large-scale minimalism and is highly repetitive, but even though the same notes and intervals keep repeating, the patterns change slightly throughout the piece. The image is static, showing only the performer and whoever passes by in the street through the windows in the background. The video was shown at Mumok in Vienna as part of the exhibition Doppelleben in 2018 and at Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn in 2020.
Mind is Moving is a video of Michael Pisaro’s composition from 1996 lasting for one hour with one sound event per minute. Images are projected onto and around the performer, slowly changing throughout the duration of the performance. The film was part of the exhibition Take your TIME at Nordenfjeldske Kunstmuseum in Trondheim 2020.
Excerpts of these four videos are shown below.
Accumulator and the trilogy of musical works will be discussed in relation to each other, where repetition will be the main area of focus in our artistic research. As well as temporal repetition, Accumulator repeats in the spatial dimension, where the staging of a performance features the live performer multiplied, as he is accompanied by pre-recorded video images of himself. According to the spatial characteristics of the given performance space, this repetition of the performer may be frontal / two-dimensional, or may extend across several surfaces, creating a surround projection in which the live performer is contained.
Accumulator 1, excerpt, 5 min. Surnadal Billag, April 2018.
Horse Sings from Cloud, excerpt, 5 min.
Opus 17a, excerpt, 5 min. 2017.
Mind Is Moving IV, excerpt, 5 min.
After producing our original outline for this exposition, circumstances intervened in the form of the Covid-19 outbreak, one consequence of which was that we were geographically separated and unable to work closely together for several months. Planned performances were cancelled and it seemed that the project was placed into a long-term standby mode. We therefore decided, in order to complete this text and to keep our project Accumulator alive, that we would start a conversation via email in which we could discuss and reflect upon the artistic strategies that are the basis of our collaborative work. What follows is a transcript of the email conversation. At the end of the transcript there are video clips of two further versions of Accumulator.
JW: To start this conversation, I’ve tried to “time travel,” to figure out where my fascination for repetition first began. It actually goes back a long way—an early reference would be the Velvet Underground song Sister Ray on White Light, White Heat (a song that presumably contained traces of the work John Cale had previously done with Tony Conrad and LaMonte Young). The first minimalist composition I became aware of was Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air, which I heard on John Peel’s BBC radio show sometime around 1970. At the same time, I was listening to the Soft Machine album Third which contains the track Outbloodyrageous—a clear tribute to Terry Riley in its use of tape loops and repetitive organ phrases. In fact, Mike Ratledge and Soft Machine gave a performance of part of A Rainbow in Curved Air at a concert sometime in the early seventies. The use of tape loops and overdubbing must certainly have influenced the early collaborative projects of Fripp and Eno, especially No Pussyfooting.
As a first-year art student in 1972 I was introduced by one of my lecturers to the work of Steve Reich, and then Philip Glass. I started to play around with tape recorders to find out what I could do with them. Then a couple of years later at art school in Nottingham I had access to a basic studio with a synthesiser and two tape recorders, and began to make repetitive electronic pieces. At the same time, I was following a course on experimental music taught by Michael Nyman and was learning much more about American minimalism and its influence. His book on experimental music, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, had just been published and was like The Bible for a group of us who were eager to absorb all of this knowledge about new music. Then there was mid-seventies Kraftwerk, which took elements of the avantgarde to the pop world, and after that, Giorgio Moroder with Donna Summer and their song I Feel Love, which seemed to make an almost seamless blend of minimalist composition and erotically charged disco.
I was also interested in the way experimental filmmakers had used loops and repetition as a way to make abstract or non-narrative cinema. Starting with René Clair’s Entr’acte, made to be shown during a ballet scored by Erik Satie, and following through the expanded cinema of the sixties and Warhol’s minimal films, there was a visual thread that seemed to me analogous to what was happening in experimental music. I feel strongly that all of these influences or references lie in the background to our project Accumulator.
MD: I started playing jazz in the mid-90s and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme was a huge discovery and inspiration; especially the three-note bass motif that Jimmy Garrison plays over and over. I remember asking drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, after a concert he played at Inderøy, if he had any suggestion where to go from there, and he suggested I should check out Pharoah Sanders. So, when I started studying jazz in Trondheim in 1998 I was heavily into Coltrane, Sanders, Archie Shepp, and Alice Coltrane; in short, most albums that were released on the Impulse! Label roughly during a ten-year period from the mid-60s. I started a band called Gibrish with Tor Haugerud, Njål Ølnes, and Kjetil Møster where we played mostly tunes from these albums: Black Unity, Thembi, Journey in Satchidananda, Ptah the El Daoud, and more. What they all have in common is of course that they have these highly repetitive basslines.
Minimalist music, drones, and reductionism was something I discovered when meeting and playing with Rhodri Davies, New London Silence (Mark Wastell and Matt Davis), Taku Sugimoto, Andrea Neumann, Nikos Veliotis, and others in the beginning of the 2000s. Although it might not have been so much about repetition, it did point me in the direction of Morton Feldman’s music and towards eventually using repetitive patterns when improvising. Meeting Steve Reich in 2003 probably pointed me in the direction of using repetition as a musical method, but even more so hearing Stefano Scodanibbio perform his composition Voyage That Never Ends the same year, which was a huge inspiration for me. The bouncing spiccatto techniques employed by both Scodanibbio and Arnold Dreyblatt, emphasizing and enhancing the different overtones on open strings, is something I have been using a lot.
In 2002/2003 I started playing solo concerts using short films by Andy Warhol (his minimalist portraits), Peter Greenaway, and others. Sometimes these were screened on a canvas in the background, or in front of me, much like Tony Conrad did. So, when I met you it made a lot of sense that we started working together, since we have a lot of similar interests.
Images from performance in NTNU research concert, Dokkhuset, Trondheim, January 2019
JW: Interesting that you mentioned the bass line from Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. When I played bass in the UK post-punk band The Distributors in the late 70s, one of our earliest tracks, a fairly minimal dub-heavy piece called Wireless, borrowed that bass line. And many of the band’s songs combined elements of experimental music with more rhythmic stuff, based on a mix of rock, dub, and funk. Robert Worby, of Langham Research Centre and presenter of contemporary music on BBC radio Three’s Hear and Now, was the band’s “Eno”, using tape loops, electronics, keyboards, and guitar. He was classically trained and already had a deep knowledge of avant-garde music, which he brought to the band and to our other collaborations in experimental theatre and performance art. Later, in the nineties and early 2000s he also composed pieces for several of my video works. The band’s drummer came from a free jazz and improv background, and the other guitarist was mainly a performance artist, who sometimes DJ’d playing dub and reggae.
I think a lot of ideas I use now came from those formative early days when I was involved in music and live arts, going to concerts at London Musician’s Collective, trying to combine different fields of practice in an intermedial way that was inspired by studies of Fluxus in Michael Nyman’s experimental music class. Therefore, to come to the core of our dialogue, Accumulator is in some ways a work that has been “waiting to happen” since I first started to mix visual art and music. As a work that is both structured and spontaneous at the same time, loosely composed and also improvised, I see it as a natural successor to many of the ideas that I acquired from studies of Fluxus and post-Cagean experimental music, as well as from experimental film and video art and, not least, from the studio techniques of dub producers like King Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry.
I think the piece is at an interesting stage now, as we have remade it several times and would have the possibility to make a multi-channel mix with several video recordings combined and a new live layer added to that. It would be interesting to explore further the version we did with Øyvind Brandtsegg, where he digitally manipulated your live playing and mixed it with the sound from the video (see video link to Accumulator 3). It would also be interesting to pick up on an idea from our collaboration early on: to work with spatialisation of the audio so that the various layers of bass could be located at different points in the performance or exhibition space.
It is a pity we do not have the opportunity to do one more performance before completing this text as I think that testing out some more possibilities would give us further material to reflect upon.
MD: I find it interesting that most of our projects so far have repetition as a core element, but for every project it means something entirely different.
Hanne Darboven’s Opus 17a appears to be highly repetitive, but in fact it changes ever so slightly throughout the piece. For the performer this means that you can’t condense the score to a few pages, as there is no other way except to play all 72 pages as they are. I also find it interesting that although it can easily be labelled as a minimalist piece, in many ways it is quite the opposite: a 70-minute plus piece consisting of a nonstop string of eight notes!
As for Michael Pisaro’s Mind is Moving IV there is no repetition in content, but there is repetition in form: one different sound event per minute for the duration of one hour. So you are repeating the action or gesture, but not the actual content.
In Pauline Oliveros’ Horse Sings from Cloud the instruction is to play a sound until you don’t want to change it, but when there is no desire to change the sound you have to change it. The aim is to play a continuous sound as seamlessly as possible i.e. minimizing (the sound of) bow changes etc. This of course raises the question whether a drone or continuous sound is or can be called repetition as such.
In the James Saunders pieces Overlay (1 and 2) that you recorded in Trondheim, performed with bass drum and double bass ensemble, the same note is repeated over and over, but rhythmically it is placed and paced differently between each instrument; in some way the same notes are performed as if they are layered on top of each other in real time.
My point being that we have been engaging in many different aspects of repetition so far. In Accumulator, layering becomes a central part of the (repeating) process and in some way I suppose it owes something to Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room, but I am guessing that self-cancellation wasn’t your main idea with this piece, was it?
JW: I Am Sitting In A Room is certainly a valid reference. The way it interrogates the behaviour of analog recording technology in the deterioration of the recording’s fidelity is something that video art in the analog era was also often concerned with. A prime example of this was British artist David Hall’s work This Is A Television Receiver, which did visually (and in audio) very much the same as the Lucier piece—namely, offering a self-deconstructing investigation of a technological phenomenon.
In his book Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City (2003), Paul Morley begins his narrative with Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room:
“Even though it is performed using purely the sound of the human voice, what happens during the recording and manipulation of the words turns the sound of the voice into a multilayered musical adventure involving a subtle mixture of tones, melodies, harmonies and rhythms…it is musical, it resembles what we recognise as music, it is an abstract series of sound shapes and noise forms that can communicate something specific to us even without the use of words—although the central paradox of this piece is that it starts out using words, basic, quite boring descriptive words, and then these words disappear into themselves, as if boiled down, as if they are changing from solid to liquid, forming a sensuous, absorbing musical form that implies how all music began with the sound of the human voice.”
Throughout the book, Morley weaves a narrative that takes threads from the avant-garde and from popular music, showing how methods emerging from experimental music, particularly minimalism, are filtered into the mainstream and become dominant forms within popular electronic music in the late 20th and 21st centuries.
If Accumulator had been made in the analog era we would also have had to deal with the rapid breaking-down of the sound and image through repetition and layering, but as it has been produced digitally we could theoretically go on indefinitely adding new layers, as long as each was a new recording added to the previous mix in a digital edit. When we reshoot with live action plus projection we situate the work somewhere between these poles—it is not purely digital since the projected image has been decoded and some noise will occur in the re-recording from the screen.
The “in-between” status of Accumulator—as a process, a work, and a practice, combining recording, layering, improvisation, and repetition—relates to a theme taken up by David Toop in his book Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and The Dream of Freedom, where he is in discussion with artist/composer Christian Marclay. Toop writes, “[c]ould we talk about composition, improvisation and recording and their relation? I think it’s a very interesting area at the moment because people used to be quite fundamentalist about what area they felt they belonged to: so, if you were a composer, you were a composer; if you were an improvisor you were an improvisor; if you were a video artist, you were a video artist, and so on. And now, I think there’s much less clarity.”
Marclay responds, “I never really worried about it being a composition or not. I mean, when a performance ends up being recorded, does it become a composition? Or when working on a recording in the studio, then it’s not really a document, but a composition.”
In Accumulator, the link between repetition and layering is fundamental. The layering is analogous to multi-tracking, but rather than being layered in a unified, multi-track recording as in a recording studio, the layers are displaced both temporally and spatially. That is to say, there is a collapsing of spatial and temporal distances in each performance, taking place at a new location. The performance is “repeated” but it is never the same twice. Even the condition of the video projection changes each time, according to the equipment used, the surface projected onto, the distance between performer and screen, and so on.
The relation of signal to noise in a process of abstraction is one of the aspects of the Lucier piece, which becomes very clear since it is based on text and speech, so what we are doing with Accumulator is something different: a kind of live multi-tracking. The multiplication of the performer is an aspect that also has its roots in earlier artistic experiments. Early video art often used this strategy, duplicating the performer using closed-circuit video systems, so that artists could create a dialogue with themselves, or be in several places and several times at the same time. My earliest uses of video in the mid-seventies were concerned with this—to collapse time and space by bringing several places and times together in an installation/performance setting through the use of the video screen.
Over several years I made a sequence of works collectively entitled “installation/action”, where media including film, video, sound recording, and slide projection were used to expand the live performance space beyond its own physical borders. Nowadays when I work with multi-screen video installations, part of what I’m doing is elaborating a space that is an expansion of the spatial/temporal confines of the exhibition space itself. My collaborative project The Atmospherics with Trond Lossius, ongoing since 2014, is an example of this. We use field recording to “capture places” or some essence of these places, but what we present as an installation is a synthesis, not a representation. It becomes a new place. And the genesis of Accumulator came from a similar position—to create a work that was site-specific, developing through time by means of repetition / reiteration and layering. (Incidentally, the two projects met within the concert at TEKS in Trondheim in September 2019, where the setting was an installation in The Atmospherics series and the method is an Accumulator performance).
So, in reference to Accumulator—as you stated in the initial response to this theme—it is not so much about repetition as reiteration. Each new iteration expands the piece in several ways at the same time. It becomes temporally and spatially “deeper” as well as harmonically more complex. At the same time there is a certain level of unpredictability in each new iteration due to the fact that the live response is somewhat spontaneous. What I have wondered about in this respect is to what extent you “know” what you will play each time, to what extent is it conscious and considered—how much spontaneity is there, in fact?
MD: I guess we are reaching some kind of conclusion, or at least as close to a conclusion as we can get at this point. I hope my earlier response gave an adequate overview of what I believe are the different aspects of repetition as a method or core element in our projects so far. I also think it’s worthwhile looking at process as an artistic method in itself.
One text I find particularly interesting concerning music as process is Steve Reich’s Music as a Gradual Process (1968), where he talks about wanting to “hear the process happening throughout the sounding music.” This happens when observing and listening to Reich’s Pendulum Music, where the feedback loops of the swinging microphones in front of the speakers gradually become longer and longer until the pendulums stop and there is only a continuous sound of feedback. This is also true of Darboven’s Opus 17a, where you can observe how fatigue affects the performer or see the diminishing rosin on the bow throughout the 70-minute duration of the piece.
Although Accumulator doesn’t involve extended duration (yet), it does involve repetition and process, and both as artistic methods in themselves when the various layers are accumulated on top of each other, eventually leading to an orchestra of basses as a backing track to a future live performance.
Layering is of course a central element in Accumulator, and reiteration as you mention, but musically there is also repetition of various materials. I know these materials pretty well, and it’s usually a combination of sounds and techniques that you would find me playing in many different settings: the bow bouncing on one or two strings simultaneously, drawing out different overtones; various harmonics in different combinations and patterns; open strings…I have a pretty clear idea of what to do and what to expect when adding the next layer at each new performance, and the open strings and harmonics will then limit the piece harmonically, often based around either E or A, major or minor, depending on the combinations of overtones, etc.
So, on one level, limiting the harmonic possibilities narrows it down and gives me a clear idea of what to expect when the next iteration comes around, but I also find that when I do limit myself to playing one string, one sound, one chord or harmonic structure, it forces me to listen and be creative within these boundaries I have created, and therefore opens up other possibilities. I think this is one of the benefits of having had the pleasure of working with Pauline Oliveros and her music: discovering all the micro-nuances within one sound by repeating it over and over, and thus discovering more and more within that sound. It’s somewhat related to Warhol’s video portraits you mentioned earlier, where you are forced to observe one face and one expression, but at the same time discover details you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.
I’ve also experimented with using pre-recorded parts in order to create specific sonic effects that are more or less impossible solo, and that are difficult with other performers. Phasing is one such effect that Steve Reich began experimenting with in the mid-sixties, with short tape loops that gradually come out of sync like in It’s gonna rain (1964). Interestingly, Reich’s experiments with tape loops were inspired by his helping Terry Riley organise the first performance of In C—a piece I have performed quite a few times, and that’s been important for me. Also, beatings and psychoacoustic effects is something I find interesting when playing with pre-recorded parts; I guess there is something Cagean about playing with something that doesn’t respond to you like another performer would do. We also did a version of John Cage’s Ryoanji with pre-recorded bass parts, some years ago.
So, to answer your question: yes, I more or less know what’s coming, but at the same time I try to respond as spontaneously as I can in any given situation, to whatever material is available, so that the dialogue between what already has happened and is fixed is something I try to change or manipulate through interacting with it, within each new context provided.
JW: OK, then this suggests to me to do another rewind—back to the start of our collaboration and the unrealised research project The Impossible Room. I see now that a weakness with that proposal was a lack of specificity, too much openness, which is in itself not a bad thing, but it makes describing a proposed project rather difficult. However, some aspects of that proposal, to do with spatialisation, layering, and intervention in a given site, space or place, can be explored further in new reiterations of Accumulator. Sticking to the twin rules for the piece—your restricted musical palette and the practice of combining live performance with pre-recorded performance—we have a tool set with which to make works that respond to the particular qualities of a given performance or exhibition space, both acoustically and spatially. The process is repeated or reiterated, but the outcome each time may be quite different! In some sense we could say that Accumulator is “We Are Playing in A Room.”
Accumulator 3, Sounds and Spaces, Galleri KiT, Trondheim, April 2019. Live audio processing by Øyvind Brandtsegg.
Accumulator 4, Performed at Belgin/ Bergen Assembly, KODE2, Bergen Art Museum, November 2019. Also presented as video projection only at Sound & Image Symposium, University of Greenwich, London, November 2019.
Opus 17a has been shown as part of Double Lives: Artists Making Music, at MUMOK, the museum of contemporary art Vienna (2019) and at Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn (2020)
Mind is Moving IV is showing as part of the exhibition Ta Deg Tid / Take Your Time, at Nordenfjelske Kunstindistrimuseum / The National Museum of Arts and Crafts, Trondheim, from June 2020 to January 2021.
Duch, Michael Francis. “Performing Hanne Darboven’s Opus 17a and long duration minimalist music.” Norwegian Academy of Music 3 (2019). https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/481276/481277.
Klerck Gange, Eva, ed. Paradox: Positions in Norwegian Video Art. Oslo: The National Museum, 2013.
Lucier, Alvin. Eight Lectures on Experimental Music. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2018.
Lucier, Alvin. Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2012.
Morley, Paul. Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.
Nyman, Michael. Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Obrist, Hans Ulrich. A Brief History of New Music. Zürich: JRP Ringier & Les Presses Du Réel (Documents Series), 2013.
Oliveros, Pauline. Anthology of Text Scores. Kingston: Deep Listening Publications, 2013.
Reich, Steve. Writings on Music 1965-2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Toop, David. Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and The Dream of Freedom. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.
Welsh, Jeremy. “RGB/TVOD.” In Paradox: Positions in Norwegian Video Art 1980-2010, edited by Eva Klerck Gange, 2-22. Oslo: The National Museum, 2013.
Pauline Oliveros, *Anthology of Text Scores (*Kingston: Deep Listening Publications, 2013), 164. ↩︎
Michael Francis Duch, “Performing Hanne Darboven’s Opus 17a and long duration minimalist music,” Norwegian Academy of Music 3 (2019), https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/481276/481277. ↩︎
Peter Greenaway’s Intervals from 1969 is an example of him re-contextualizing the images by repeating them with a different soundtrack each time. ↩︎
For more on performing Darboven, see: Michael Francis Duch, “Performing Hanne Darboven’s Opus 17a and long duration minimalist music,” Norwegian Academy of Music 3 (2019), https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/481276/481277. ↩︎
Pauline Oliveros, *Anthology of Text Scores (*Kingston: Deep Listening Publications, 2013), 164. ↩︎
David Hall’s This Is A Television Receiver was an experimental video art work commissioned by BBC television for broadcast in 1973. In it, the newsreader Richard Baker, the main news anchor at the time, reads a short text to camera, describing what a television is and how it functions. The short video is then reshot off the monitor screen. This process is repeated many times so that both sound and image become degraded/abstracted with each new recording, until finally neither image nor sound have an indexical relation to their source. For more discussion of the work of David Hall, see: Jeremy Welsh, “RGB/TVOD,” in Paradox: Positions in Norwegian Video Art 1980-2010, ed. Eva Klerck Gange (Oslo: The National Museum, 2013), 12-22. ↩︎
Paul Morley, Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City (London: Bloomsbury, 2003),1-2. ↩︎
David Toop, Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and The Dream of Freedom (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 13. ↩︎
Steve Reich, Writings on Music 1965-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 34. ↩︎
Ibid., 20. ↩︎