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shells bells steps and silences (documentation)

this is a casual document of my recent installation at los angeles contemporary exhibitions – LACE – a three channel sound and video installation, bringing together walter benjamin, martha graham and john cage…

here’s the notes:

in october of 2011, i was invited by the DAAD to spend a month researching walter benjamin’s archives at the akademie der kunste. i had seen some of benjamin’s notebooks previously in an exhibition in berlin in 2006; and started to think about how i might be able to spend more time with them.

because i am unable to speak or read german, my responses to benjamin’s notebooks were mainly towards visual aspects of his writing, including various systems, organizational decisions, as well as more idiosyncratic presences. while i am, of course, deeply interested in many of benjamin’s writings, i felt that approaching some of these less studied aspects of his writing (through his visual process of making words visible) was consistent with some of his quotes regarding proust and the idea of the ragpicker – someone who builds something significant from supposedly tossed off or insignificant parts.

in this way, i was able to approach benjamin’s graphic and color-coded “theme symbols” as a kind of precursor to the graphic notation and visual systems explored by many avant garde composers of the 1960’s, such as morton feldman, cornelius cardew and, of course, john cage.

benjamin used a variety of visual systems to organize his notebooks and texts through both color sequences and the use of graphic symbols. i spent much of my research cataloging a variety of benjamin’s graphic decisions towards the making of my own scores. as with most of my work with translation, the idea was not only to notate benjamin’s lexicon of shapes and colors, but to explore these findings with an approach of “what can these things offer me in terms of suggested actions or decisions”. my research was not so much a seeking, as a process of discovery, archive, reading, interpreting, and re-reading…

when i arrived in berlin, i was already ten months into a year long project of performing john cage’s 4’33” every day for the year. thus, visited the benjamin archives every day, was accompanied by a performance of 4’33” everyday… and so, cage and benjamin became connected through my daily practice and my work. i performed 4’33” in many different parts of berlin, but there were several times that i performed 4’33” specifically in the benjamin archives.

when i returned from berlin, i received two large boxes of seashells and small objects that belonged to the dancer martha graham. while i had planned upon their arrival, my idea was to set those boxes aside so that they would generate a new body of work “somewhere down the road”. but as i began to work with the benjamin research towards a score that became more and more complex, i realized that the graham objects would be the perfect “orchestra” for its realization, and slowly i moved towards a kind of a “mash-up”, with benjamin, cage and graham entwined.

while i have been making films for over 20 years, i approached this body of work with video. it seemed to relate to the fact that everything i was working with was immediate, intimate and kind of happenstance – approaching something more as a daily activity than a studio practice. everything on the surface of what i was looking at felt “unremarkable” and quiet – graham’s seashells, her travel souvenirs from asia, benjamin’s postcards from a trip to sienna… it all seemed to want to wear regular clothes, rather than a tuxedo and a ball gown… and most importantly, the medium not only fit the message, but it offered a very different kind of performative process; one that was less measured and less rigid than using 16mm film. in essence, i knew that video would allow me to experiment much more in the moment, than film. since i would be performing a score, the score had to have the potential to evolve during the making of the piece, so that the process would allow me to make mistakes.

as an artist who works in multiple mediums, it is always exciting to build an entire body of work in a medium that is less familiar, offering an aesthetic that contradicts the veneer of my work, yet knowing that certain aspects will remain, but will be present in a language less used in my work.

of course, everything in an artist’s work is bound to the idea and process of evolution. these pieces most certainly did not come out of nowhere, but are an aggregation of bits and pieces of earlier works – and clearly, these new works are all very much related to the film i made in 2011 called “striations”, as well as my sound performance practice – which nearly two years ago began to incorporate video as another improvisational element.

shells, bells, steps and silences. it documents 40 short performance events that collide via chance operation.

each of the 40 actions follow one of benjamin’s theme symbols as a score. at its simplest, each of the colored symbols determine a corresponding object, an amount of time, a number of actions, and other performance sound action parameters. for example, each symbol is analyzed towards the number of actions it takes to draw a symbol – so that with an X, the symbol is made up of two actions, while a triangle takes three. thus, the X determines a sound making of two actions, and a triangle, a sound making of three actions. each symbol also has a corresponding color (or pair of colors as some of the symbols are red and black, or brown and black, etc.). and these, determined the colored felt in each shot.

after filming my hands performing many of the sound actions, the piece felt too busy, too active, and too familiar – and the resulting footage simply did not work. after trashing several months of tests and ideas i began again, thinking, that, because i was following a score, i should offer something closer to my performance work – which has rarely participated in my films or my recordings. i ended up creating recordings in real time with a delay pedal, a battery powered speaker and a contact mic (as well as many of graham’s things, a record player, cassette player, battery powered synth, my voice, field recordings and a piano). the idea of all of the battery powered gear was a way to bring the objects and the “studio” to several different locations, so that everything could not be entirely controlled.

in my sound works, i tend to gravitate towards loops, particularly when there are situations where various moments are allowed to come together in multiple ways (chance operation in action). along with a contact mi, my looping pedal has been a constant over 25 years of performance… and so it seemed the perfect sound carrier for this work. this pedal is not only my “axe”, but a huge aspect of my “voice”.

for ‘shells, bells, steps and silences’, sound was generated, sucked into a contact microphone, sucked into a delay pedal, spit out of a small speaker and recorded with a microphone into a digital recorder – allowing that the location to also be present in the resulting recording. these recordings are not just about capturing a moment, or the residue of a short performance, but attempt to allow the past to speak in the present, as if an echo has been been trapped in a bottle.

aside from listening, one of the main components of 4’33” is the passage of time, and in particular, it is a situation where one experiences time through three movements of specified lengths. each of the 40 actions in shells, ‘bells, steps and silences’, follow one of six lengths, related to two versions of cage’s score.

_Octominpent Zeitgeist medley video by Greg Corby Lee audio mix by Glenn Cattanach Greg Lee Jeff McKeehan

Glenn Cattanach auto parts salesmen, worked with two other DJ’s – Greg Lee and Jeff McKeehan. Glenn owned all the equipment, and Greg and Jeff were local club DJ’s in Lexington, Kentucky. The three of them had previously made two other medleys together – the “1984 Top 40 Medley” and the “Best of Hot Tracks 1984.” Both medleys appeared on Hot Tracks during 1985, which was the 4th year for Hot Tracks.

Glenn, Greg & Jeff came up for the idea of a BIG two-part medley for 1985 and started work on it in October of 1985. Greg was really the mastermind behind the medley, being the one with most of the ideas, but the medley was a group effort. Greg reviewed dance charts and came up with the list of songs to include. They named the two-part medley “Octomnipent Zeitgeist” which loosely meant “THE Spirit of ’85.” These guys wisely kept logs on the entire project, noting the settings for the turntable speed, mix board levels, equalizer settings, tape speed, etc. This enabled them to later re-edit any part that needed perfecting.

All the work was done with two turntables, a ¼” track 15 IPS reel to reel recorder, a cassette deck with dbx noise reduction and a variable speed 7½ IPS reel to reel recorder. Digital recording was uncommon in 1985 and no samplers or effects (delay, reverb, echo, and no CD players!) and no multi-track tape recorders were used.

The key to the entire medley was what was called the Kentucky Multi-Track method (named that because they were living in Lexington, Kentucky at that time). They would record 8 to 16 beats of a percussion piece to use “under” the song being edited. They looped those beats by splicing a length of edited tape together, sometimes several meters long, and playing it repeatedly while recording that rhythm track to a cassette deck (with dbx noise reduction) for 3 minutes. They would then play that cassette back, mixing in the record/song they were adding to the medley with the rhythm track. To transition to another song, they would use the same rhythm track under the next song to make it sound similar to the previous song. Frequently, several rhythm tracks were sampled, layered and cross-faded. This method was often subtle and always effective. This way the songs did NOT sound like a bunch of turntable mixes that were simply chopped up and edited back together. They used more than 70 or 80 different “loops” or rhythm tracks for the entire medley.

Final preparations for “Octomnipent Zeitgeist” included breaking the 35 minute medley into two parts, adding mix breaks between the two parts, and adding a Wizard of Oz theme (since they were calling the separate parts OZ-I and OZ-II). The medley ends with a trickling ultra-high-speed voice-over describing the origin of OZ. Hot Tracks published the medley in January and February 1986 as Series 5, Issues 1 and 2.

The mix took 600 man-hours and over three months to complete. It was a labor of love for these guys. They figured out what they had spent on tape (remember, back then everything was on ¼” tape, no hard drive recording) and the vinyl records, they each made only about $40 US. They didn’t care. They had created one of the best year-end medleys ever and were known by DJ’s around the world.

Sony ICDBX140 Digital Voice Recorder (2-Pack)

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