Co-composition involves themes of materiality and process together with approaching the creative practice from an action-driven perspective. It is situated in-between sculptural and sonic practice and my route of exploration seeks to merge aspects of both traditions and their creative methods. I am reflecting on works that focus on the idea of process with an aim to locate practical and conceptual tools and to develop an understanding of how structures and actions could be articulated in an interdependent manner.
Action works such as Lucio Fontana’s Concetto spaziale [spatial concept] 50B9 (1950) involved the visual impressions left from the artist’s physical actions on a metal sheet. In observing this work, one can see the direct response of the material to the force of the actions of the artist that altered not only of the material’s surface but also its volume. This includes a manner of thinking about material, which is closely related to time and the way material is manipulated in successive actions. In a sculptural context, Carl Andre articulated his action-oriented approach to sculpture verbally. According to Alistair Rider, Andre’s use of the term cutting instead of for instance, carving, detached his approach from any sculpting technique: “a cut was always a generative act, regardless of its nature” (Rider, 2011, p. 71). Rider drew attention to Carl Andre’s statement: “up to a certain time I was cutting into things…Then I realized that the thing I was cutting was the cut. Rather than cut into the material, I now use the material as a cut in space” (ibid., p. 53). From this position, Andre expanded actions from techniques to notions. Further to Andre’s work, Richard Serra explored “the nature of process” through his work Verb List Compilation: Actions to Relate to Oneself (1967-68) (Serra, 2000). Serra's words acted as stimuli for actions rather than for communicating information about the way actions were executed for achieving a specific outcome. An example is the work To Lift (1967), which as Serra stated, did not involve a process of thinking about composition or the result, rather it was about making sculpture by enacting “those verbs in relation to a material” (MoMA, n.d.). Verb List was in that sense a creative tool that enabled the development of relationships between material and actions of making. Richard Serra discussed his work To Lift in relation to his Verb List, which as he stated, was “revealing exactly what it did” (ibid.). John Rajchman considered Serra’s List as a type of thinking, which
…has a logic that makes it more than a list, and a central aspect of this logic is that it gives its verbs as infinitives. In language, infinitives are indeterminate virtualities. They become determinate only through the addition of persons, objects, and situations, given through tenses and pronouns, which tie them to the here and now of sensations and actions. In their infinitive form, verbs suggest processes without fixing them in time and space. […] the “activities for un-specified materials” thus become a matter of attaining this infinitive potential spatially, prior to subjects or objects, and the question arises of the larger philosophical nature of this space. (Rajchman, 2007, p. 66)
How could such an “infinitive” repository of ideas concern the qualities of both sculptural and sonic material? Serra’s consideration of the process itself as a model for thinking about sculpture enabled me to look for links between the made/sculpted and the heard through the actions of my making.
From a music perspective, compositions such as John Cage’s Water Music (1952) looked at a hybrid function of actions that were communicated as instructions to a performer. These included non-musical activities such as pouring water, as well as using objects on and inside musical instruments to transform sound. Such activities aimed not only at generating unique sonic outputs but also to “engage the eye” (Schimmel, 1998, p. 22). Performance instructions were notated on a score using verbs, time indications and musical staffs. Similarly, James Saunders mentioned that Antoine Beuger’s colour series “formative principles did not determine the structure of each piece, but simply suggested a situation (a title, an instrumentation). His work cadmiumgelb (2000) for double bass presented a set of instructions for making a sound…” (Saunders, 2011, p. 504). Oscar Wiggli’s scorring processes brought together sculpture and sound visually and verbally. His partitions graphiques and partitions verbales integrated aspects from the making process and the environment of the workshop (Hesse, 2007). Oscar Wiggli used sound recordings from his making as material for his compositions. Using video stills Wiggli captured visual qualities of his sculptures similar to those of spectrograms for visualising sound qualities. Oscar Wiggli structured the morphology of his sounds as a collage of visual material that was derived from his sculptures and their making (Wiggli, 2010). Wiggli worked with samples recorded in the sculpture workshop, and sound synthesis. His verbal score for the work RESEMBLANCES ET MIROITEMENTS (1994) created links between the two modalities by using verbs such as sparkling, pearling and rubbed, which were directly derived from sculptural processes, material qualities and their manipulation. During the performanceTightrope Dance by Hans-Joachim Hespos, an action of welding was used by the performer to free himself from a space in which he was enclosed (Steiert, 1994). This operated as a visual, theatrical element, but also contributed to the sound environment of the composition as the performer’s action of welding aimed to intervene in the performance’s stage design/visual and sonic outcome.
In focusing on such relationships between instructions, actions and sounds within the above-discussed works through a dialogue between sculptural and musical practices, I suggest that actions could be used as intersecting points between sonic and physical material manipulation. How could actions be articulated meaningfully, across the two materials? And, what types of knowledge could be generated about sound in relation to physical material manipulation?
2. Actions and processes of co-composition
Change never goes without acting. Actions define the shaping of our environment and allow us to challenge its known state. In my work actions operate as gestures of expansion. Each action has great significance in the way we interact with and communicate with our surroundings.
I approach sound in the same way as physical material by looking at aspects of texture and source. As Vicky Browne mentioned in an interview with Caleb Kelly:
…everything/object/material has a known sound. The way we know a material is not only through sight or touch, part of knowing the material is sensing the sound it makes. For instance, if we take a piece of wood we sense the sound of what it would make if we drummed our fingers onto it; hence it is part of the way we know the material. (Interview with author, 2014 in Kelly, 2018)
Considering “sound as more than sound” is also reflected through Sonya Hofer’s characterisation of sound as something “tactile”, which could be worked as a physical material (Hofer, 2014, p. 298). This is close to the approach of Oscar Wiggli who referred to sound in a sculptural manner and in relation to physical material; as if he was working with it inside his workshop using sculptural tools (Dhomont, 1994). In Hofer’s view, this manner of working brought “different associations and practices for creators and listeners” (Hofer, 2014, p. 298). It promotes then a visual yet embodied way of thinking about sound related to actions. How does this change the making process and the way we understand sound as medium?
In his work Bleigiessen, Michael Blow reworked Serra’s Verb List “for a sound context, replacing the actions relating to physical material with corresponding actions relating to sonic material” (Blow, 2014, p. 26). Blow recorded sounds from casting metal in a melting stage, which was then thrown in water. The sound of the act of throwing the melting metal into a bucket of water was recorded with hydrophones, capturing the “explosive” moment, as he described it, that was caused by the different temperature and the properties of the materials. The resulting sound was according to Blow, “a mixture of a falling pitch, white noise and final clunk of the solid metal hitting the bottom of the bucket, all of which lasted about a second” (ibid.). Revisiting Robert Morris’s Box With the Sound of Its Own Making, Blow manipulated the recording of his process of throwing by stretching it in time, which in his words resulted in “giving a slow-motion impression of what is in reality an almost instantaneous event” (ibid., p. 27). For Blow, the actions, which contributed to the formation of the physical material, bore with them “a sense of frozen violence” produced by time and movement. These actions were related to both human activity and environmental influences. The object carried with it marks from the process that although they might have been disappeared in its final form, were audible in the recording. Blow’s action of “throwing” had inherent the decision of having limited control over the finished product, as in Serra’s works that were derived from his Verb List. I argue that actions can be used for the simultaneous manipulation of both physical and sonic material. I take an analytical approach for associating actions to sounds and to sculptural outcomes for reaching an understanding of their potential interdependent articulation within co-composition. Blow’s time-stretching method introduced a notion of expansion of the making process over time by “reveal[ing] continuation properties intrinsic to the sound…[and] expand[ing] the indivisible qualitative properties of a grain into a perceptibly time-varying structure a continuation” (Wishart, 1994, p. 51). Tim Ingold suggested that to “arrest the flow [of sounds]…is not a coherent snapshot, but a collection of atomic fragments” (Ingold, 2000, p. 258).
In a past paper titled ‘Spectrogram data as system for making sculpture’, I have discussed sound produced by actions of making on physical material in relation to Denis Smalley’s ideas of spectromorphology, as “…an approach to sound materials and musical structures which concentrates on the spectrum of available pitches and their shaping in time” (Panourgia, 2016; Smalley, 1986). How is the co-compositional approach different from a musical one? Examining how a sound emerges in both ends of co-composition: sculpted as shaped over time, in terms of spectromorphology, and in terms of Michel Chion’s concept of “ergo-audition”, draws here on physical material behavior, material properties and the actions executed. In that sense it is concerned with an interdependent state between maker, physical material and auditory feedback. An analysis of sound recordings from the making process, revealed that intensity, continuity and discontinuity in sound define the progression of making (Panourgia, 2016). Sound can be further understood in my practice as “…part of the traces of the event” (Chion in Velasco-Pufleau, 2017, p. 169).
Concerning the steel making process, two main actions can be distinguished: welding and grinding. The action of welding included holding pieces of steel together, executing the welds and adjusting the pieces as the object was being made. The sound of welding involved a pause “between each sound of welding […] while rotating [the object], which creates a type of rhythmic pattern” (Panourgia, 2016, p.192). As observed in the spectrogram analysis, the rhythmic pattern varies in duration, which reflects the sub-action of adjusting and the interdependent relationship of sound with the physical material manipulation involved in co-composition. The sound of welding is characterised by moments of high intensity resulting from an accumulation of energy over short periods of time, which resemble to small explosions. Welding’s sonic qualities are closer to a percussive sound. Changing the rhythm of welding by transforming the intervals between each weld into shorter ones for example, would produce a denser and more intense sound. Regarding the making, continuous welds would signify a faster process with less time for rotating or thinking about the object’s form. Following this, sounds of the making mirror the time scale of sculpture and their transformation could, therefore, affect the sculptural outcome.
The action of grinding is happening with a back and forth movement for cutting or removing extra material, while rotating the object. Grinding sounds are more sustained than the ones produced by welding. Pauses between sounds happen less frequently, and they concern adjusting the grinder on the surface of the object while deciding on the continuation of the process. Grinding is more intense than welding and energy is articulated in longer periods of time. The sound of grinding presents waves of energy including subtle variations of their spectral content according to the position of the grinder in relation to the sculptural object. Distancing the grinder from the object had as consequence the loss of contact with the material and the change of its sound to less dense and of a higher frequency. This action produced an effect of ‘grinding in the air’, which was executed for the sake of the sonic output and added a performative quality: it allowed more time between grinding and rotating the object, and a pause in making.
The spectral analysis of sound recordings and the listening experience show that intensity, continuity and discontinuity in sound are the main aspects that define the progression of making (Panourgia, 2016). Acoustic properties that depend mostly on the operation of the tools cannot be drastically transformed unless there is malfunction. What can be changed is the state of the materials during the making such as their position on the working area, the angle of holding them while working and my response to the making process. Responses include the way physical actions are happening such as the frequency of rotating the object, and the changes I intend to make during the making process. For instance, grinding for longer periods of time would signify a more substantial change on the object’s form. Sound qualities respond then to energy release and the potential of actions. Although it can be possible to generate denser welding sounds and ‘grinding in the air’ effects with the machines in order to add more sonic variation, such actions would be an ‘artificial’ addition to the specific making process and would affect the sculptural outcome. The sonic and performative qualities in this inquiry are attached to the particularity of the co-compositional dialogue between the two practices. Using the one modality in favour of a specific outcome in the other is something that I decided to avoid in order to focus more on the interdependent state between sound and physical material. This consideration directed me towards the digital manipulation of the sounds.
I looked at ways for transforming the sounds recorded in the workshop with an intention to develop new imageries of actions through their sonic traces and explore how these could instantiate new responses in relation to the co-compositional process; to think therefore, about how changes in sounds could allow a reconsideration of sculptural actions. Using the software IRCAM Audiosculpt, I manipulated sound recordings of my actions of welding and grinding steel focusing on deforming the time of the making, which was attached to the notion of continuity and the harmonic relationships within the signal. As in Blow’s Bleigiessen, time-stretching techniques aimed at giving a slower impression of each action creating a contrast of duration, but also providing me with alternative insight on the way the action was executed.
Concerning the sound of welding, it was digitally transformed into a sound 10 times faster, a sound 3 times slower and a sound 10 times slower and of slightly higher frequency than the original recording (from top to bottom). The slower the sound is, the more it loses the percussive quality that is inherent in the original sound of welding. Regarding grinding, the sound was processed into a sound 10 times slower, a sound 20 times slower, of lower frequency and a delay, and a sound 20 times slower and of higher frequency (from top to bottom). Time-stretching the sound of grinding enabled me to spread and navigate the micro events within the spectral content of the original recording. Frequency shifting was used to transform the harmonic relationships within the signal. Higher frequency made the grinding sound more crystallised and focused on the friction between material and angle grinder, whereas lower frequency and a delay turned the sound more environmental and distanced it from the original source. In working with sound processing, I started questioning the relationship between the actions of making and the processed sounds; how could a non-real-time sound manipulation be brought together with sculpture making through actions and enable my active response to sound-making and sculpture-making simultaneously? How could the relationships between the two modalities be transformed and performed in live time?
"Welding", performance 'Process/Procedure' by Eleni-Ira Panourgia, April 2018, University of Edinburgh. Film 120 Fuji Pro 160S on a Noon Pinhole 12 Camera. Developed, scanned and processed by Sam Cornwell.
"Grinding", performance 'Process/Procedure' by Eleni-Ira Panourgia, November 2017, University of Edinburgh. Photographed by Beichen Yu.