Hearing Body, Sensing Sound
Wave Equation at Western Front
I arrive at the Western Front flushed, heart thumping. Half from exertion, having accelerated to a jog in an effort not to miss the performance’s billed 8 o’clock start time — and half from excitement: it would have been tragic to miss a moment. I needn’t have worried. Climbing the steps to the second floor, I am greeted by a warm cluster of chatter and laughter. There is little of the usual pre-performance (pre-drinks) aimlessness among the crowd, who vary in age and social demographic: individuals who resemble my parents (middle-aged, nerdy but kind looking) mix fluidly among aesthetically forward-thinking youth. Acquaintances hail each other and ask after each other’s creative and professional projects. I even recognize several artists whose performances featured at New Forms Festival. The common charge running through everyone seems to be one I, too, can relate to: an attitude of sincere (verging on giddy) enthusiasm towards the innovation we are about to witness, and the experience we are about to share.
The Western Front is well suited to creating an atmosphere that balances a casual, intimate rusticity with something of an academic solemnity. The concert hall is high-ceilinged and warm despite its size, and carries the spicy, musty scent of the rich dark wood that panels its walls. The performance area is not a stage as such but is demarcated by a lack of carpeting and a border of snaking black audio cables.
Spread between the requisite mics, amplifiers and effects pedals is an array of interesting equipment: in centre stage, a lamp with a beige and brown stained-glass lampshade hunkers on the ground, flanked by an antique cello (later revealed to be the oldest instrument in the room, dating from the 17th century). Two mad-scientist synths — Sarah Davachi’s EMS synthi AKS and her partner and collaborator Richard Smith’s ARP 2600 — bristle with a forest of knobs, sliders and cables. Centre-left, underneath a table supporting a laptop and Akai pad controller is a semi-opaque storage bin that seems to contain coils upon coils of coloured wire. Most intriguing, however, is the centre-left setup: On a table sits an aquarium backlit by fairy lights, a large metal bowl, finger-cymbals, and a bell. On the ground directly to the left, two silver balls are sat upon mottled foam blocks, surrounded by an array of crocodile-clip cables. The effect is almost of a physics demonstration set up for a grade-school audience, and I am both intrigued and unnerved by the proximity of water and wire.
To preface the performance and settle the crowd, the Western Front’s New Music curator and director, DB Boyko — a commanding but approachable presence who reminds me of Boudicca with her long hair and black broached poncho — stands to say a few words. The evening’s performances will take place in two parts, she clarifies, partially in order for the audience to prime themselves for Davachi’s performance. “A relaxed state of mind” is ideal, she states. With kindly mischief in her smile, Boyko assures us that we are in for a “different kind of experience.”
As she speaks, mási (Alanna Ho) and marina (Marina Hasselberg) busy themselves setting up their performance. The two young women are outfitted in matching striped sleeveless bodysuits under skirts: Ho in yellow, Hasselberg in red. (Ho would later tell me that the skirts were an attempt at modesty, as the pair were unsure as to how the full bodysuit would be received by the older audience expected at the Front). The effect is distinctly theatrical, almost doll-like. As it happens, this impression is not totally unfounded. Ho and Hasselberg’s performance is a light-hearted one. They are less interested in structuring harmonies than in exploring interfaces, connections and feedback. The experiments in reaction and dynamisms which give rise to their sound are grounded in play.
Hasselberg begins, seated at her cello, to run her fingers along the lengths of the strings. The slow, low and slightly coarse drone hangs abandoned in the space until Ho takes up the first of her series of props. First the bowl, which she alternately taps at with a ball, exploring the resonance of its shape, and then submerges. The arch vibrations are transformed and muted, creating a sense of remoteness. The sound seems to have been transported to another space, leaving only the echo of itself. Recorded into an effects pedal, the sounds return upon themselves, lifting and looping, transposing the watery ambience as more objects are submerged (Ho will later tell me that she is interested in water for the isolating effect it has on sound. As the resonant fields at each level inside a given body are almost inaudible at other levels, every sonic space is also a profoundly intimate one).
A slight crackling, bloops and bubbling, finger cymbals playing first their silvery tones and then a series of splashes as they are dunked and dragged in the tank. The water in the aquarium itself becomes more dynamic, both visually — the bubbles and flows generated by each new object illuminated by the glowing backlights, gesturing to phosphorescence — and aurally, as the sloshing itself thickens the sound layers. As the viscosity of the sonic space increases, Hasselberg interjects. At once, the cello becomes percussive, bow bouncing as if to simulate a string of popping bubbles. In response, Ho too raises the pitch of her performance. Now playing with the contours of the aquarium itself, her saturated fingers squeak across the glass panels. The contrast is interesting—earlier, the water medium has the effect of muffling and isolating the sounds of her objects—now, however, it activates and generates the acoustic effect.
The piece, called “Whale”, comes to a close with a slow tapering of the layered sounds. Hasselberg lays down her cello, and the pair come to kneel face-to-face, surrounded by electrical objects for the second movement, “Seagulls Eating Clams.” Both now grasp wires which are otherwise crocodile-clipped to the foam blocks (which are actually conductive) as well as Ho’s computer, containing her sample library. The two begin to interact, at first mirroring each other’s hand gestures in a patty-cake buildup and then, with an air of innocent exploration, touching, and in doing so completing a simple circuit that triggers the samples. As the touches become more prolonged and fluid the sound, initially isolated bloops, are stretched into a frenzied staccato. From finger to finger, hand to hand, finger to neck, to nose, Hasselberg traces Ho’s body into a dispersed sound-image, sonic pointillism. They edge closer: now the points of connection are elbows, shoulders and chins. The space they occupy together shrinks in area but increases in density. In response, the quality of the sounds deepen in tone and intensity and reverberate more richly.
Hasselberg dons a ring attached to a wire, provoking a treble frequency that sails over the layered basses. She grasps one of the silver meridian balls, and Ho guides her hand to the cello, travelling over the strings, triggering both a whistling sample and acoustic resonance. The instrument, the body, and the circuit are all interdependent, none taking primacy in creating sound, all essential components in the relation and its creation.
Ho’s grasp on Hasselberg becomes more imperative, compulsive, approaching violence; the regularity of the strings is interrupted by a series of discordant tones formed into squawky motifs. Then, as if to dissolve the angry turn of the performance, a humorous “yo” sample is triggered and sustained into a looped battery, calling after itself. In the final moments, Hasselberg is left alone, still wired, as Ho saunters off stage, and we are left with final crackles and inner-ear ringing as the energy coursing through her body settles and re-individuates.
Kiran Bhumber and Dr. Margeurite Witvoet take the stage. The latter is outfitted in a skintight black dancer’s bodysuit, two stripes of colourful fabric running the length of each side. The strips are conductive and resistive materials, activated by Witvoet’s copper tape clad fingers. Her touch and the voltage fluctuation it causes—the electricity of the body completing the strip circuit—is read by an Arduino and arranged live by Bhumber.
As they run through their pre-performance sensor check, there is a hiccup: a wire has disconnected, and the suit is generating no output. This, however, allows a brief interlude for Dr. Bob Pritchard, with whom Bhumber developed the suit, to take to the stage and perform a little in his own right: a live solder. It is a moment testifying to the still prototypical nature of the suit.
The performance begins with Kiran triggering and layering a series of acapella tracks, an angel chorus of alto voices raising as Witvoet, bathed in soft yellow light, stares at her hands. Her expression is infused with some wonder and some apprehension, as if seeing its copper tape coating for the first time, and as something both beautiful and alien.
Her hands trigger both vocal samples—prerecorded but arranged on the spot—as well as harmonic tones. After the fact, Bhumber will explain that the sensors apprehend the quality and vibration of her voice, which is processed live into different pitches, and once again layered and arranged.
As she strokes the suit, she also sings; the vocals remaining staunchly analog, a human contribution. Her face is almost impassive, but for a ghostly tragic mask underscoring the set of her lips and hollowness of the eyes. The lyrics she sings—written on commission by Bhumber’s cousin, Kitty Rodé, speak to the image of touch, presence, and loss—the body experiencing the absence of another, the memory of that connection embedded in the flesh:
“I touch, I am here, see me”
“How can you see me when we have never met, skin to skin”
The melody has become a shimmering cloud of shifting, swaying, layered tones. Witvoet’s lyrics, increasingly blurred, are drawn into the lush ecosystem of layered sound only to differentiate again as her voice loses the form of words. She breaks down into a sequence of keening cries, wails that pierce through the shifting canopy of sound. Once again, language asserts itself as she exhorts her absent lover to experience her body as Gaia, its canyons and mountains.
“Hear me, let me surround you”
Witvoet’s eyes remain as emotive as her voice; they become expressive rather than perceptive. The machine, her instrument suit, too, is blind, seeing only through touch. The performance is exploratory, traversing the topography of the body: how it can be quantified, as a text to be read not only with eyes but with fingertips and necks, cheeks, bellies and all the curves that flesh fills. The body is experienced not as itself but in relation to another, as a material site of connection and reaction. Here, touch becomes primary in sensing the body, and the image it constructs for us is no less vivid than one apprehended by the eyes. Bhumber is interested in the body as an analogue to an instrument, activated through its physicality rather than through the sight of a sensor. The synth suit evokes a type of material or physical memory: the past as it is recalled and re-experienced, viscerally, through the imprints it has left on the body. This interrelated state of mind and body, reacting together to create embodiment: of emotion, of the totality of experience, is a focus of the piece. This togetherness and collaboration through sound is made palpable to us as the audience; we hear the body.
During the short break, the crowd is once again urged to step outside, stretch, and take in fresh air. The chairs nearest the performance zone are pushed to the side as more of the audience choose instead to sit, lay or lie directly on the carpeted ground. I join in, kicking off my sneakers and finding a spot on my back, head on the ground; I want to feel directly any of the deeper vibrations that may reverberate laterally.
Davachi, joined once again by Hasselberg and Smith, takes the stage. Smiling as she pushes her heavy bangs out from her eyes, she states wryly that her work may be challenging, employing sustained tones both consonant and dissonant. We are also encouraged to move about the room during the course of the performance, as doing so will modulate our own perception and experience of the sound, thanks to the room’s own acoustic contribution. Her approach to sound continues in the tradition of Eliane Radigue and Pauline Oliveros, whose works place an importance on an intense and immersive form of listening, permitting the discernment of subtly morphing frequencies.
Once again, the low, solitary growl of Hasselberg’s cello begins the piece. The synth joins in, matching the grumbling pitch of the strings, and we are sunk into an ocean of visceral reverberation. The notes are held, stringing the moment along, but over time the instruments drift apart. Davachi has an interest in antiquated and analog equipment: the instability of those instruments from the 70’s whose tones naturally fluctuate and detune, lending a personality to the sound that cannot be emulated or generated by the stability and homogeneity of digital tones.
The sound shifts, wavers and swells, expanding in body and acquiring a richly coloured timbre. It rises steadily, the polyphony between the instruments becoming more lush, sweeping over and through the bodies laid about the room. The depth of the frequencies at first creates an ominous opacity in the atmosphere, a sonic smoke cloud gathering; but on reflection, the impression modulates itself. I think of light breaking or sinking across a horizon. There is a sense of emergence, of accumulation, of soundwaves infinitely multiplying, proliferating, weaving and eddying through the space.
I have the sense that I am not so much perceiving sound through my ears but that my body itself is becoming a receptive site for vibration. I feel as if the limits of my body are irrelevant, that I am becoming transparent and transpierced on a forest of frequencies. They wiggle, they drone, they pierce, they soar above and through the body.
Davachi is distilling sound; synthesizing affect; oscillation as essence. As the notes themselves disappear, their resonances remain, creating the perception of “ghost fundamentals”: the spectres of pure tones. The sounds are not direct and sourced but amoebic, now forming one undifferentiated mass, now splitting off to pulse on their own unique levels.
At this point I have raised myself from the ground for a different sound perspective within the room, and as the interval between cello and synthesized sounds shift veer further apart I am aware that my body, too, is differentiating.The bass trembles in my hips and belly, rooting me to the ground while the trebles expand behind my forehead and between my ears, drawing my head upwards. I feel as if my body itself is existing in a peristaltic environment, the sound gellifying my bones. And gradually, the synths retreat. I have no idea how much time has passed. Hasselberg’s cello, intoning its solitary drone, is once again left to bring us back into our bodies as they are: perceivers of, and not suspended or animated by, sound.
Davachi’s intentions behind her sonic work are aimed towards creating a space that will exhort an audience to truly listen, to experience sound as something more direct than diversion or background noise. As the crowd stirs, sluggish, dazed, drawn back from a dreamscape, a parallel, vibratory dimension, I think she may have succeeded.