Compositional process as research
The development of my research methodology follows the nature of my artistic practice. Based on vocal-affective attunement, this practice is an attempt to harness sensate means to experiment with affective registers that can be attuned with non-verbal vocality. Artistically it is situated at the intersection between vocal improvisation, sound art, contemporary music and site-specific contemporary art practices. By vocality, I refer to the resonant, vibrating nature of the voice as a material-energetic resistance, one that is also relational and emanates affective knowledge.1 As Böhme emphasises, voice is the articulation of one’s bodily presence. It does not communicate by means of symbols, but the expression is understood rather by its unique texture: how the vocal resonances play on the listener’s body. 2 In such a way, voice broadens the experiential borders between individuals, and might rearrange the ways in which one perceives herself, her body, and the surrounding world.3 According to musicologist Anne Tarvainen, such blurring of the inside and outside, the body-mind dualism, and other dichotomies is typical for embodied vocal and listening experiences.4 Affectivity underpins my work, in which each human voice takes on a transindividual, scaled dimension that has potentiality and tendencies for attunement as bodies affect one another. This graded dimension is always present, including within the tones of verbal speech.5 Attunement, to cite Massumi, ‘refers to the direct capture of attention and energies by the event’.6 ‘Affective attunement’ refers to child psychologist Daniel Stern’s understanding of an intersubjective phenomenon, where affective ‘contours’ can be shared and sensed beyond verbal communication.7 The notion of vocal-affective attunement describes, from a sensate perspective, the vibrating mode of attunement, portraying it as an entangled form of thinking and embodiment that permeates the bodies and environments involved in a singular situation. Insofar as such attunement appears, it can be heard in the quality of the sound and sensed in the atmosphere of the situation.
This practice has transformed into a compositional medium of my research.8 This medium is not, however, a fixed method or a specific tool as such. Rather, one could talk about an indeterminate catalyst; a potential and gradual transition from a verbal, subjective position towards an atmosphere-like and rudimentary non-verbal experience. Within the fragile and acute context of psychiatric care, however, the recognition of the registers of silence and their potentiality to pass towards vocal, vibrating utterances, might be equally or even more relevant. At the core of this vocal practice, and in the knowledge it sets forth, is human-to-human encounter. Within this encounter, as a researcher, I will have to put myself at stake first. The research practice thus requires a certain fragility from myself as a researcher: the way in which I position myself with, and in relation to, the participants is not a matter of objective observation. Instead, I operate depending on interoceptive, auditive, and vocal sensing of my body’s internal relations and, in particular, the in-betweenness of the bodies present within that situation. The encounter does not happen in a context of therapy, between therapist and patient. In my own practice, the goal is not therapeutic per se, but affirmative: through my own vulnerability, I try to evoke vocal situations that explore the subject-object distinction through the experience of temporal entanglement and a sensate refocusing of attention. The ethically oriented research practice was conditioned by the secure atmosphere of the situation, the opening up of non-verbal expression, and yielding to attuned states of listening. Insofar as it works, embodied knowledge is produced with respect to the non-therapeutic potentiality of the technique of vocal attunement, about how bodies are rearranged within the field of resonance.9 Consisting of bodily productions of vocalising and listening, and structures of sensate material flows, the compositional process of Vocal Nest can be seen as a singular research method — a mode of analysis, reflection on, and articulation of the research results.10
For this research experiment, the clinical lead of the Psychiatry Centre approved my meeting with voluntary inpatients from four closed wards, under the guidance of staff, for non-recurring open concerts of 30 minutes, one in each of the wards.11 I had previously visited these wards and the people receiving psychiatric care there a week earlier and, planning together with the care staff of the ward, had invited the patients to join me for a moment of non-verbal singing together. In the information I had provided about the situation beforehand, I had explained that I would be producing some simple non-verbal voices and, if the participants chose to, they could answer what they heard with their own voices — with whatever tone that happened to come out of their mouth at that particular moment. I had stressed that, as with participation in this joint event more generally, making sounds would be completely voluntary. The participants could also just sit in silence and breathe.12
The strained silence, moving along the walls of the wards, and the tense immobility of many of the participating patients’ bodies, was almost audible at the beginning of the sessions. The affective qualities of this silence appeared to me as a feeling of emptiness, intense isolation, perhaps even horror, yet imbued by a certain potentiality, communicated by a dense stillness. Sound artist and researcher Salome Voegelin notes how the particular acuteness of silence focuses the mind and alerts one to herself in a way that is not tied to sensate recognition.13 Focusing attention on these silent, breathing bodies as a starting point for the vocal work was meant to engage with the affective qualities and potentialities of this unknown muteness.
It was captivating that those who came to share this moment with me, often suffering from different kinds of acute psychiatric loading such as psychosis, almost immediately joined in the vocal sound-making. This was not about singing as a performative action, but rather a group of people emitting something that was not words, not a melody, but some sort of sonorous response relating to that particular situation and the people present. The articulations produced from within that silence were very valuable because they expressed the bodily presence of the patients who were not capable of, or perhaps not willing to, engage in verbal communication at that very moment. During this experimental situation that I initiated with the patients, I could almost spot a tiny moment when something changed: a subtle passing, that brought about a different bodily feeling, a collectively-oriented quality that had not existed before the event. It was as if the quiet bursts, low sighs, and other bodily sounds would have set the stillness to vibrate beyond the auditory register to other modes of sense perception.14 This passing is also audible, I propose, in the tone(s) of the shared voice that can be heard from the recordings of the situation. The untamed, shared vocal material had begun to attune.15
The shared voice became the primary research focus of my inquiry; one could think of it as vocal thought matter. This kind of sensate thinking is not simply an immaterial form, but an embodied substance, which can be located within the material productions of the human voice.16 In the process of Vocal Nest, this embodied substance was located and co-constituted in the intra-active relations between the participating bodies, voices, and different materialities of the involved hospital environments.17 The compositional process of this material acknowledges myself as an artist-researcher being an inseparable part of the sensate thinking process, not from a certain distance, but from within this entanglement.18 The conceptualisation emerged during the process of working with Vocal Nest as I tried to find a way to talk about the specific evidential power of these voices. They do not endorse only through aurality, hearing, but get into my skin and flesh as tactile and vibrational sensations.19 The sonic relations, through which the overall tone of the piece is composed, are based on my sensate thinking with and knowing from within the shared sphere. However, they are not reducible to my artistic expression.
Anonymous thought matter was transformed into the sonorous basis of a vocal sculpture. I listened to its tones, and tried to reinforce the changes in its intensities and force fields by improvising with my own singing, as conditioned by this entangled material. These improvisations were also recorded. The starting point was an appreciative listening. It took some proximity to the deceased composer Pauline Oliveros’s practice of deep listening, which approaches listening as an invitation to give attention to what is perceived through hearing: to expand one’s listening, embodied with musical sensibility, to continually include more. Although the practice of deep listening involves also bodywork and sonic meditation, my practice orients differently. As noted earlier, the aim of my work is not (only) focused on expanding hearing but to open to the sensate realm of shared reality through vocal sensibility. Through turning my listening into vocalising, I tried to recognize how, from the charged bodies and breathless rhythms of the beginning of the event, something began to gradually take hold of the situation and generate, in a unique sense, a resonant and shared embodiment.20 The composition process of this material was deeply situational, entangled with the people and with more-than-human factors, such as the acoustics of the hospital space; I also attuned the piece with my vocalising to the tone of the elevators in the stairwell (a sharp minor).
The composition, tuned to this pitch, had a generative structure. The compositional system, built by Thomas Svedström, structured the sound as ever-changing and loosely unfolding according to the logic of a Fibonacci sequence. We used the numbers 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and 13 as an organisational logic. The system alternated between three generative sound textures. Each texture consisted of voiced sequences and silent parts, so that each consecutive sequence was longer than the previous, having a maximum duration of approximately three minutes. The sequences were constructed using a large sample database that was created by slicing the patient session recordings into 8-12 second pieces, arranged according to their inherent rhythms. Along with these sequences, a new sample of my own vocalising was added, together with a new voiced part, consisting of the patients voices, resulting in a total of five simultaneous sound sources per sound texture. The system monitored silent parts and controlled the fade-ins and fade-outs, so that each sample slid in and out smoothly.
From these various interwoven elements, human-sound environments of approximately five minutes duration were composed. They were played through eight loudspeakers, placed in between the nine floors of the ten-floor high stairwell. The system selected which floor would begin the sound in each sequence, from which point it started to radiate to the other floors until the entire stairwell was sounding. In the sound installation, the alteration between sounds and silent zones was also entangled with other-than-human sounds in the environment: the doors of the wards opening and closing, the elevators moving, people talking and passing by, as well as birds singing and wind blowing outside the hospital windows. Thus, more than a work of art, it is rather pertinent to speak about a procedural continuum of series of encounters, responses, and processes of falling silent.
While demonstrating the installation, we realised that some of the microtonal material I had sung felt too alarming when placed into contact with the deeply sensitive situations people were experiencing. Lucy Lippard maintains that site-specific art should have a particular ethical sensitivity, and that it should assimilate the basic rule: ‘don’t force what don’t fit in.’21 The relation between the tonal, slightly melodic, and non-tonal vocal material was thus composed with particular ethical attention to the situation-sensitivity of this place. The thorough compositional passage and means of the process also rested on such an ethico-aesthetically oriented logic. This orientation is manifested within the compositional details of Vocal Nest.
The shared moments of listening also followed the logic of this compositional process as research, typified by a slow and secure mood, spatial arrangements for listening, and particular ethical attention to describing the piece. After being installed in June 2015, I first introduced the composition to the administration of the hospital, then to the staff of the seven wards, and finally to the people who were inpatients in these seven wards. First, I briefly explained the composition process. Then, I invited inpatients that the staff estimated were capable of leaving the closed ward to listen to the installation for some ten minutes within the stairwell. By the time that Vocal Nest was exposed in the hospital space, the medical research permission for the second stage of my research was still being processed. Due to that, I could not gather systematic feedback.22 In my exposition, I use the descriptions that I wrote of the spontaneous and anonymous embodied reactions and spoken feedback I received from some of the patients and their relatives, the staff, and other people who came to experience the installation from outside the hospital sphere. I made field notes on these encounters. The methodology is also linked to some extent to autoethnographic work, because I make use of my own experiences as an artist-researcher. Furthermore, some connections to the participatory ethnographic research could be made through the vulnerability of being an artist-researcher among the patients within the discursive context of psychiatry. I do not, however, emphasise this realm of research in the exposition. To further expand on the mattering of the process, I refer to a few anonymous written feedback comments from two other installations of the piece. This material comprises 19 written pieces of feedback that I received as an artist from displaying Vocal Nest as part of the Henkireikä Art Festival in the music hall of the HUCH Psychiatry Centre in September 2015. The feedback was given by patients, relatives, staff members, and other people. This setting, unlike that of the stairwell, was a closed room. I have also included 55 anonymous written feedback comments that I received from the installation in Gallery Lapinlahti Helsinki in June and July 2016. I also refer to an interview with the psychiatric nurse Heimo Spelman in January 2017, who co-operated with me in the second phase of my research.
In the next three chapters, I read the insights of people’s experiences with the sonorous, non-discursive vocal matter, and vice versa. By doing so I try to show that the causal relationship between the apparatuses of bodily production (vocalising and listening) and Vocal Nest, as the material phenomenon produced, is one of agential intra-action.23
"Being exposed to the co-emergence of the mutual situation alters the tones of my own voice by challenging the already settled ways of vocal expression. It is not just about me seeking to affect the participants through the vocal work, but also this quiet and dense vibrating sphere getting into my skin and flesh, attuning my being. Comforting, haunting somehow.” (Research diary, March 21th 2014)"
An outline of the spatial unfolding and volume transformation of the sound materials in the stairwell
"I constantly hunt for such a position in my research from which I can operate by taking into account both my own sensate knowledge and the entanglement or bond between the ethical and the aesthetical dimensions of experience. It marks a withdrawal into such a position, in which I would not override the other voices present (by my experience as a singer), but in which I at the same time would not regulate my own expression too much. No matter how I try, the situation remains asymmetrical: a. I am responsible over the situation, b. by their present life situations, the participating patients are always slightly subsidiary to me as a researcher." (Research diary, February 3th 2014 and September 10th 2016)
"The inner state of my body, sensed from within, is not disconnected from the situation I am in: the intimate micro perception, that is, the sensing of the posture and exterior spaces of my body is in immediate relation to how I position myself in the environing situation. Voice transports this perception also outside my bodily sphere: I can both hear my voice from the outside and sense it from within. The act of vocal attunement is therefore a constantly transforming passage between the inner registration and the perception of the surrounding, shared reality. (Research diary, May 30th2014)"