I’ve been having a think recently about the notion of performance, in particular when it comes to improvising. I have previously written a short piece titled ‘On Confessions of Breath’ published on The National Tropospherics Commission site (http://erstlaub.co.uk/ntc/OCOB.html) that looked into my improvised trumpet/clarinet and electronics works as a meditational/exorcism device but, with a new performance piece and an alternative approach looming, I thought it pertinent to consider and readdress this area.
I’ve become quite enamoured lately on the prospect of chaotic systems and their capacity to self organise, I’m about to start work in the next while on a paper that investigates the artist as a self organising system (or possibly the process of the artist as a self organising system), or maybe my system will self organise itself into something more sensible and assessable, I digress.
There is a counterpoint in improvised music where both the performer and the listener reach an acceptance of chaos. The performer, with dexterity, knowledge and ability creates, navigates and disperses new and exciting landscapes (often this is a more enjoyable process for the performer than the listener but that’s already a long running argument to be had elsewhere). Knowing their medium, the improviser can listen and react. but there also exists a more chaotic direction, I’m not saying this is in any way ‘more improvised’, just another approach.
The piece that has spurred this text into motion is a response to Plymouth Rock, an installation work by New York based artist Trisha Baga who is currently exhibiting at DCA, Dundee.
“Plymouth Rock (2012) […] considers the famous pilgrim landing site by meandering through Chinese takeaway menus and a recital of a Justin Bieber Christmas song. This work is emblematic of her experimental approach to presentation – harnessing reflections, shadows and overlays which match the fragmented edits of the film itself.”
The soundtrack to this work is a disparate collage of snippets of songs, diegetic sound and spoken word that Baga has woven together (or allowed to fall together?), it mirrors the physical realisation of the piece comprising of a complex series of found and appropriated objects, both displaying and breaking projections and creating intricate shadow play in the gallery space.
Now, I should confess, I work in the gallery at DCA, I often end up spending hours in the close proximity of work and it does have a tendency to creep into your subconscious. So I was sitting in the studio the other day and an ohwürm surfaced. After a fair amount of poking and prodding, I managed to grab hold of it and identify it as a bit of ‘Let’s Dance’ by Bowie (not my favourite period of his, that naturally is ‘Low’ but I’ll continue), it wasn’t a sensible bit though, not the chorus, or the bridge, or even an even bar’s worth of it but a strange little off-loop. Seeing as my brain was already unconsciously sampling and looping this material, I thought it might be an interesting challenge to use this random, ever changing sequence of sounds as a chaotic impetus for improvising using a series of dedicated effects units and loop pedals.
In the past, when using physical instruments (or even occasional forays into radio based scrying) alongside electronics, there has been an inclination of control over the input, having played a series of notes that are looping, my brain, fingers and breath can make the leap and build on them or I can allow the situation to take the piece in another direction. With a completely uncontrolled and random input, we reach into a different, weirder territory.
There is something dangerously liberating about the idea of not being entirely in control of a situation that you are entrenched at the heart of, particularly given that in a moment of crisis, you can’t fall back into safer territory, both performer and audience locked together into a dialogue that endures until one of them decides that enough is enough and calls it a day.
It could be argued that knowing the signal processing equipment and carefully considered order of the system that I’ll be using for the performance, that I still have a degree of expertise and control over the results, but then that needs to exist otherwise it would be a perpetually growing, saturated wall of mush and of little performative or sonic purpose. The ‘goal’, (although I’m starting to feel a little less goal oriented and possibly more interested in process and potentiality) is the opportunity to open up discourse, to react to situations outwith regular systems of control and maybe even to throw little caution to the wind? When we are in control of all the elements in a system, there is less room for surprising feedback loops, odd rhythms and unexpected harmony to arise.
Maybe this will be the beginnings of a more free, less organised, decentred self or, more likely, an additional escape vessel to be employed when the constrictions of order become a little too frustrating and asphyxiating. I like having systems, sometimes I like having systems a little too much, it is just worth bearing in mind that even a chaotic system is still a system and as such it will have a tendency to organise itself (even if its organisation is a chaotic form ((you see, it gets somewhat recursive?))).