6.2.2 Process and Audience Response
Aside from being a collaboration with two other core artists, the material of the project and the process for arriving at this material is similar to that of FutureMOVES; while the content is highly conceptual, the music and performance again came from the actual physical action of creating yarn from wool and then knitting it into a garment; the “new” art, in this case, was actually created by carrying out the steps of the process of the “old” art, through a new lens.
The mention of the concept of efficiency in the section on linguistic history relates to Ursula Franklin's definitions of prescriptive and holistic technologies – the more compartmentalized the means of production, the more control bosses and business owners could have over their workers and the process. As workers move physically further from the work and more intermediary steps or mechanisms are created, work becomes more standardized and also faster or more “efficient”. This was interesting to us politically in its relation to avant-garde interdisciplinary artistic practices, which seek to de-compartmentalize the different forms and organize them in new ways.
Our compositional work was structured around the actual chronological order of producing wool garments: beginning with raw unprocessed wool being combed on a pair of brushes in preparation for spinning, moving on to a hand-held drop spindle and then a spinning wheel, to knitting and finally, in the first version, to a section where we “played” sweaters by feeling their contours with gloves containing contact microphones embedded in the fingers. For each step, we experimented with different categories of sonic extraction processes, outlined below. We also included purely instrumental interludes, working with inspiration from the textile tool sounds as a starting point for improvisations on clarinet, guitar, synths and voice with electronic manipulation and accompaniment. Sometimes these were mixed with the textile tool sounds as well. Conceptually, these interludes could be read as “useless” within the context of a performance examining the nature of handcraft and labour, although the content was often intrinsically related to the sonic material from preceding sections involving the wool tools.
From a sonic/musical composition perspective, there were 3 categories of treatment for extracting sound from the knitting and spinning materials and processes:
1 – Natural/Acoustic
In this category, the sounds remain untreated; they become a part of the composition by virtue of a process of listening, theatrically or musically drawing the listener's attention to the raw natural sound of the object. Amplification is used not as a compositional device, but as an invisible adjustment to affect a “natural” atmosphere in terms of balance. Sounds that fit into this category include playing knitting needles as percussion instruments; voices telling stories in the foreground and chattering in the background; a recording of an electric kettle boiling water for tea. Amplification was used in order to effect a natural-sounding (in perspective) integration of sound; the purpose of amplification in this case was to make the stage sound audible at a “normal” level for the audience.
2 – Enhanced/Augmented (compositional amplification)
Amplification was used again in this category to make sounds considerably louder than normal; in this way the amplification was a used as a compositional device, bringing sounds to levels “unnaturally” higher than their normal levels to an enhanced and almost absurd effect. This category also includes subtle processing on the amplified sound, through the use of software (Ableton Live) and hardware (guitar pedals) as well as by slightly changing the way the woolworking tools are used, in some cases, such as by “preparing” a wool winder with card tags from skeins of heritage wool, playing another moving wool winder with a knitting needle to highlight its cyclical movement and to create an extra percussive effect, or striking the yarn on the winder with a plastic card-like device called a “needle guage” (used for measuring needle size) attached to a “stitch holder”- another knitting tool - a large object resembling a safety pin, causing a disturbance in the cyclical movement and thus a sonic intervention as well.
Transformation of the instrumental and sung vocal sounds was also used, through delay, looping and other subtle effects on the voice and clarinet, creating a musical tapestry behind the storytelling and the sonic interventions of the woolworking tools.
3 – Transformed/Translated/Assigned/Representative
In this third category, sounds were triggered by the knitting tools, but these sounds were artificial, or created through a transformation of some physical process or gesture of the tools into signal or data; this data is then turned back into sound through an external process. Examples used in previous versions include the use of a light sensor to track the movement of the spinning wheel by sending an impulse to the modular synthesizer each time a spoke passed the sensor; each passing spoke triggered one section of the pattern, which was pre-programmed using a sequencer. In the Newfoundland version, a hall effect sensor mounted on the stationary post of a homemade wool winder was triggered by a magnet attached to one of the rotating arms, sending a signal via midi to a Korg Volca Sample drum machine, triggering a drum sound in a random pattern. This was achieved through an Arduino Mega interface, nestled in a custom box designed in collaboration with media artist and creative technologist Patrick Saint-Denis, building on the ideas developed by Hedin Ziska Davidsen and Lex van den Broek. The Arduino was also used to translate the act of metal knitting needles touching into pitch, using the needles as a circuit to trigger specific pitches (one pitch per set of needles) using the “tone keyboard” sample code from the Arduino website. This was intended to be a preliminary test of the instruments which would later trigger fragments of text or perhaps recordings of sheep vocalizations, however after some experimentation we agreed that the pure sine tones were to date the most effective, as the relationship between the aural and visual experience was more immediately perceptible when we used a very simple sound. The monophonic nature of the tone library associated with the tone keyboard code also created interference or “glitch” sounds when more than one set of needles were touching at once – the effect is reminiscent of early video game systems and created a hilarious juxtaposition and comment on how rapidly something that seemed “futuristic” can become “archaic technology”. The wool-winder sensor and the knitting needles can, in theory, be used to trigger any kind of sound. I chose in this version to keep the “primitive” electronic sounds of the basic synthesizer and vintage drum samples.
As previously mentioned, the piece is completed by the integration of local artists and practices in several ways. In most cases, a period before, during or after the performance, (depending on the audience and setting) is set aside for participation from people who are not members of our collective.
In the case of the first performance and residency in the Faroe Islands (August 2017), we traveled to the homes of spinners and knitters (mainly elderly women), who shared their stories and reflections with us. Their ideas became integrated into our work in two ways – first, their accounts of treating wool gave us cues for the form of the work, for example one woman shared a story of two people, singing while knitting together on one garment (both sides of a sweater) – this became integrated into a section of our work where the three of us knit side by side – we were directly inspired by the image she gave us. Later, I found footage of this practice through a random YouTube search (“Faroe singing”).
Additionally, sound clips from the interviews became actual material for the performance – creating a parallel between oral history - taking and repeating verbal information - and material physical instruction.
A second series of performances took place in the Faroe Islands in March 2018, when we undertook a residency and tour of elementary schools in the Faroe Islands, sponsored by Listaleypurin, an organization that promotes art in the schools in the Islands. These performances were slightly more interactive, and we tailored the performances to the age groups we were presenting for; sometimes stopping mid-performance to demonstrate or explain something, or ask the children questions in order to keep their attention.
The project developed rapidly in a new and much more community-oriented direction during the period of preparation for the Sound Symposium in St. John's, Newfoundland in June of 2018. I arrived six days ahead of my collaborator Reuben Fenemore, to meet with local fiber artists, knit with them, listen to their stories and prepare a performance. Using their own materials, the previously developed Rokkur instruments and hybrid instruments that we created together during our residency period, a 35-minute presentation was crafted. When Reuben arrived, he integrated subtly processed clarinet improvisations as a backdrop to the performance, largely comprised of storytelling, in addition to field recordings from the knitting group's soundscape (water boiling for tea), an account of a particular sweater from a Newfoundland storyteller, and previous field recordings from earlier iterations of the project (sheep recorded in Iceland). The major difference between this and earlier versions of the project was triggered by the absence of Heðin Ziska Davidsen, the third member of our group. As Heðin had previously been the major technological brain behind the project, I had to adjust and take on his role as well, as I would be working with the community artists before the arrival of Reuben and needed to be well versed in the technology we were using. I worked with Montreal robotics artist Patrick Saint-Denis to develop a compact system to house a) five pairs of knitting needles that each trigger a specific pitch on a basic sine-tone synthesizer built into the Arduino b) a hall effect sensor which triggers a drum machine via midi and c) a light sensor, to be used with a drop spindle equipped with a small LED flashlight. I also brought a bag of contact microphones that I built for another project, knowing that my own comfort level with this particular piece of technology would allow me to work on amplifying the instruments with a reasonable degree of success even without a technical director.
The modified instruments as well as the (physical and sonic) absence of the modular synthesizer allowed more space for the inclusion of members of the local community, something we hadn't fully succeeded in integrating in previous versions, although this was always a desired direction for the project. Because I am a knitter, my first contact with the local artists began not from sound but from shared obsession, respect and and active practice in traditional fibre craft. I believe this relationship was the cornerstone of the performance, and was what allowed it to be so different from earlier versions; rather than beginning from music and aiming to make a musical performance “about” knitting, we began with the essential subject matter of the piece and then worked our way either from physical movements used by knitters/spinners, stories and personal and family histories pertaining to these practices.
Another aspect of the essential subject matter of the piece came from subtly amplifying the natural sounds of the tools – the spinning wheel, several types of wool winders, knitting needles-- creating an acoustic and theatrical effect of “zooming in” on an otherwise tiny and intimate soundscape. Again, rather than beginning with already existing music or even with the expectation of making musical sound, all sonic material was generated through authentic engagement with the tools of woolworking – the sound was a result of the physical actions of knitting, spinning and preparing wool to be spin. The sonic presentation became a way to highlight this process and to ask the audience to meditate on a particular practice, distinct from cases where a theme is chosen as a superficial and imposed way of tying together a set of already-existing works. (I am not saying this is negative; simply that it is a distinctly different approach.)
“ 'It is hard to resist a technology that is also a tool of pleasure,' write Sarah Leonard and Kate Losse in the new issue of Dissent. 'The Luddites smashed their power looms, but who wants to smash Facebook-- with all one's photos, birthday greetings and invitations?'
That's on the money. Things do get messy, confused, when the means of production is also the means of communication, the means of expression, the means of entertainment, the means of shopping, the means of fill-in-the-blank. But out of such confusion comes, eventually, simplification, a concentration of effort and effect. Imagine if, at the turn of the nineteenth century, the power loom also served as a social medium. In weaving your quota of cloth, you also wove the story of your life and unfurled it in the public eye. Think of how attached you'd become to your loom. You'd find yourself staying late at the mill, off the clock, working the levers and foot pedals, the shuttle purring. Hopelessly entangled in the threads, you'd demand a miniature loom that you could use at home, and then an even smaller one that you could carry around with you. Every chance you got, you'd pull out your little loom and start weaving, and all around you others would be doing the same, weaving, weaving, weaving.
I have taken my life from the world, you would say, and I have turned it into cloth, and the pattern in the cloth: that is who I am.” -Nicholas Carr, The Loom of the Self
This project is becoming a platform more than a specific formation – the starting point of mixing personal and site-specific histories of knitting/spinning with music allows for a wide range of possible forms. At the time of publication, I am pursuing an opportunity to return to Newfoundland with the project to do an installation version in the Gallery of the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador. This would include interactive tactile elements as well as an audio score, sourced from local textile production and with a large documentary element. The performative duo and trio formation will continue, with a performance and workshop at the Open Waters Festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada in January 2019 and pending performance opportunities in Montreal and in Europe/Scandinavia.
As a format for creating a project, I believe the link with traditional textile arts has been an extremely effective means for engaging local and diverse communities in the reception and creation of experimental music. As one participant in the Sound Symposium performance noted, it becomes not about doing something “correctly”, but about being curious and taking risks, asking “what would it sound like if we...?”. A review of that performance celebrated the absurdity of the juxtaposition of such a traditionally soft and feminine-perceived practice with experimental electronic music; from my vantage point as an experimental music scholar, this subtly references the strong presence of female-identified composers in early electronic music. It also calls audiences to question prejudice about what qualifies as art and what qualifies as craft, and why. The reviewer also mentioned that she couldn't remember the last time she saw women over 40 given centre stage in order to tell their stories. (Sound Symposium website, web resource).
6.2.1 Description and Motivation
Rokkur began with the idea of handcraft and the history of tools for creating textile materials, and various parallels to DIY practices in sound. It is is a multi-layered instrument and performance creation project, using traditional textile tools and implements as a starting point for sound-making objects and multidisciplinary community-engaged performance. The three core members, Reuben Fenemore, Heðin Ziska Davidsen and myself, wondered what kinds of sounds could be made or triggered with these tools, and how they could be integrated in the context of the instruments we already play (clarinet, flutes, electronics; guitar, synth and electronics and voice, electronics, respectively.).
In our early discussions about the project, one of the things we were most fascinated with was the contrast between the perceived silence of these activities and the inner experience of knitting or spinning. These are not loud processes, but they have an internal rhythm that is experienced by the spinner/knitter. We were very interested in exploring the kinds of “imaginary” sounds that we could relate to the rhythm of the physical work, or even extract from the physical process. We are also interested in the space for solitary reflection and community gathering that woolworking offers in many cultures.
The project has a large community engagement aspect, as stories and community histories surrounding the culture and development of textile - and especially wool harvesting and processing – are gathered, explored and told through theatrical/performative events. These events are usually created in cooperation with residents of the communities where we perform. Prior to performance, participants from local communities engage in wool-working, instrument/sound-making and storytelling sessions facilitated by the team of artists according to personal areas of interest and expertise. Sound and video material is gathered during these sessions (with permission of participants) for later inclusion either as performance material or as a starting point to develop the music and structure of the performances.
An interesting aspect of the community participation lies in the form of the instruments themselves; because they are not “traditional” instruments, there is no established performance practice for using them. This allows us to transcend perceived barriers of “capacity” on playing these instruments and foster a sense of shared sonic exploration and discovery among participants, both community members and participating artist-researchers.
The initial idea to create this project was deepened through exploring the linguistic connections between words for spinning and working with wool:
Rokkur is the word used in the Faroe Islands for a spinning wheel. The word can also be used to mean rock music. (Globse online Faroese-English Dictionary). Embedded in this word, is the Swedish word for clock, which is ur, representing time. On a basic spinning wheel, the large wheel drives a spindle that twists the wool into yarn. This makes it more efficient than a handheld spindle, as more wool can be spun in a shorter amount of time. So by using a handheld “drop” spindle and going to the next level of spinning with a “rokkur” we indicate a transition demonstrating more efficiency. As a handheld spindle and rokkur use the same amount of wool to produce the same amount of yarn, we measure the efficiency as the ratio between product and the time it takes to produce the product. A transition also operates within time, effectively indicating a timeline.
Fabric in English relates to material, often cloth. In germanic languages the word fabrik translates into factory, echoing our connection between industry and product.The word spuni comes from the word, spinna, for spinning wool. In the Old Norse language, a North Germanic language spoken by the Vikings and from which the modern Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Danish and Faroese languages (Barnes, 1-2) are descended, spuni can also mean “imagined”; heila-spuni means fantasy. Heili is the Norse word for brain (Old Norse Dictionary).Spunatónleikur is a word used for improvised music in Iceland. This is interesting in the context of the project, as the word for spinning translates into the actual spinning of the wheel but also the the nature of the music, that is largely devised from collective improvisation sessions as well as improvisation with the sometimes unpredictable sounds coming from the process and the tools themselves.
The linguistic links, while very abstract, wound up giving very concrete ideas for sonic and physical realization/embodiment, and in binding together the many threads of this project.