I once heard a joke about the 20th century philosopher and problematic figure Martin Heidegger: he once spent four hours opening and closing the door to his office at the University of Freiburg, trying to understand the action that we all take for granted in all its subtleties. This story is a lie that some cheeky undergrad came up with while struggling through Being and Time, but the joke still points to the crux of phenomenology and its massive influence on artists through this last century.
Musically, we can trace this perspective to John Cage and his study of Zen Buddhism and the I Ching. Cage’s music demands an entirely new approach to listening that throws out the window all the lavish harmony and rhythms of classical music in favor of the subtleties of individual sounds. Much like his contemporary in the visual arts Mark Rothko, Cage (as well as Morton Feldman and others) sought to tear away all the unnecessary information from music, leaving only the subtle textures and noises within notes and chords that would otherwise fly by unnoticed. The influence of these composers looms over most contemporary experimental music, and the Extradition Series summer concert in July was no exception.
Extradition is a performing series created within Oregon’s Creative Music Guild, a collective of local musicians dedicated to performing improvisational and experimental music. Extradition takes their artistic inspiration from Fluxus and the music of composers like Cage, Feldman, and Pauline Oliveros, and their concerts reveal the subtleties in sounds we hear all the time. The five pieces they showcased at their July 27 concert at Performance Works NW were among the most challenging performances I’ve ever heard live, requiring an intense form of listening that pulled me into the smallest details of every sound while giving space for quiet contemplation. In tight quarters with no more than forty people, I felt like I was participating in a group meditation, with the performers becoming our yogis (dressed in all black rather than orange).
First on the program was Alvin Lucier’s rarely-performed The Sacred Fox. Lucier is perhaps best known for I am Sitting in a Room, which loops and overdubs a recording of spoken audio tape (“I am sitting in a room…”) until the voice becomes unintelligible, buried under the resonant frequencies of the room. Sacred Fox takes a similar interest in resonance, this time within small cavities rather than an entire room. Extradition curator Matt Hannafin performed the piece solo, singing and speaking three phonemes–[k], [n] and [o]–into a series of metal and ceramic pots, bringing out unique reverbs and overtones in each container. The reduced material may seem a bit boring at first, but the repetition allowed for a deep dissection of the sounds themselves: [k] as a forceful, rough burst of noise, [n] as a raspy nasal that transforms into the darker, more open [o].
As an opener, The Sacred Fox gave me a very clear impression of what this concert would be about: the subtleties of individual sounds, long individual tones, and soft dynamics. Everything in the room was amplified: I could hear my neighbor’s breathing, the slow movement of air through the space, and the tiny sounds of my pencil scribbling notes during the performance.
Lo Wie’s Score for 3 Performers followed. As with most works on the program, Wie’s score has open instrumentation, meaning that the performers choose the instruments. The score consists of “three progressively larger columns of numbers (3, 9 and 28),” which the performers are free to interpret however they wish. The most interesting instrumentation choice was the electronic element, which in this case was Alissa DeRubeis’ modular synthesizer manipulating a sample of what sounded like glass breaking.
(Aside: can we stop using the term “electronics” as a generic term for all non-acoustic instruments? Couldn’t we specify which electronics we are using? Sampler, laptop, modular synth, turntable, analog tape, etc?)
Wie’s piece contrasted with the following composition, Angharad Davies’ Cofnod Pen Bore, despite their surface similarities. According to the program notes, Cofnod Pen Bore consists of a small set of instructions and “eleven small transparencies,” reminding me of some of the graphic scores of Cornelius Cardew. Wie and Davies both used open-ended scores, but with different approaches to realization. At some point, the lines between controlled chance and free improvisation become blurry, and without close listening they can both seem chaotic.
Differences appeared upon close listening. In Cofnod, the addition of three voices (Annie Gilbert, Margaret McNeal and Stephanie Lavon Trotter) opened up the entire palette of sounds the human voice can make, and thus each note seemed more fragile–partly because the performers could hesitate and second-guess their own choices. They often chose to explore bird-call sounds, heavy breaths, low gurgles, and distant screams over more familiar, speech-like sounds. The sonic delicacy extended to the percussionists as well — Hannafin again, joined by Branic Howard, placed contact mics on stones and metal sheets to capture their subtle textural differences.
After intermission and free drinks, we came back for what was by far the most taxing piece on the program: Eva-Maria Houben’s The Crickets of Raspberry Island. The score only calls for three sounds: clarinet, a high sustaining sound, and a low sustaining sound–here played on bowed bell and tam-tam rubbed with friction mallets. These long tones slowly faded in and out, almost imperceptibly–at times I could hear the outside traffic on Powell more clearly than the performers.
For the first half of the 40-minute performance, the subtleties of each sound–the noisy breath of the clarinet, the inharmonic overtones of the tam-tam–came to the front of my mind. By about the 25-minute mark, however, my patience began to waver. I peeked at my watch and began writhing in my seat, eager for a moment where the entire room couldn’t hear my breathing anymore. It was terrifying to be forced to sit still and silent for so long.
This led me to wonder why I felt so uncomfortable–and I remembered the writings of Salome Voegelin. She writes in her book Listening to Noise and Silence, “silence is not the absence of sound but the beginning of listening.” Silence forces us to listen to the tiny details, but this close listening also forces us to confront things we’d rather not think about, such as the limits of our perception and of our existence in general. It is all too easy for us to fill our lives up with noise, keeping the television or the radio humming in the background to remind us that we are not alone.
This drive towards recognition, the desire to fill our lives up with noise, ironically drives us away from people: we plug in our headphones and enter into our own world, where we only hear what we wish to hear and reality bends to our whims. To confront silence is to confront the true nature of our world, a world that doesn’t care about our petty human problems, where death is possible at any moment. And this is how humans listened for most of our history!
The Crickets of Raspberry Island, despite its uncomfortable length, ended up making the most lasting impact on me. It is the challenging things that become the most rewarding, and it is healthy to be reminded every once in a while that there is a world of possibilities beyond our comfortable perspective. The two percussionists and clarinetist Lee Elderton deserve especially high praise for this performance: it is a difficult enough listen, and I cannot imagine how much concentration it takes to perform.
The final performance was a new take on a piece originally composed in 2004: an improvised dance by co-founder of Performance Works NW Linda Austin, with musique concrète accompaniment by Brian Moran. PS112: Insert Silence framed movement with audio extracted and edited from what sounded like a variety of interviews and tape-recorded memos of ideas.
I know very little about dance (as anyone who’s ever seen me at a concert will know), so I don’t have much of a framework to judge Austin’s performance, but to me it felt very spontaneous and sometimes surreal, almost to the point of parody. The tape itself referenced the work’s desire to be “a little bit edgy at times,” which added a sense of humor to a performance that–had it been wholly earnest–I would’ve dismissed outright as the sort of pretentious nonsense that people who don’t like contemporary art think all contemporary art is.
Austin also displayed a clear comfort in her performance space, stamping numbered sticky-notes onto the wall in the corner of the room and slurping Reddi-Whip off an audience member’s chair. The audience, including the person forced to make way for dessert topping, smiled and laughed at the self-aware absurdity.
As I left the show I was in a bit of a daze, trying to comprehend everything that I had witnessed. But to some extent it is beyond comprehension. There are things that are unexplainable, things that transcend our language, and these composers and performers have attempted to tap into these deep truths of our reality by expanding our perspectives on sound. To try and explain it merely through stating what these sounds are belies what they make us feel, which is the difficulty of writing about this kind of music. Voeglin says, “to impose any framework of expectation onto what I hear in this stillness negates the opportunity to listen.” My favorite parts of the show were the moments of silence where traffic permeated through the windows, reminding me of where I was after all this time. It was incredibly grounding.
Extradition offers a deep sensory experience that is challenging yet profound. Their upcoming show on September 21 at Resound NW showcases Edmonton composer Mark Hannesson’s music, with Hannesson himself performing on trumpet. Hannesson, along with Houben and other favorite Extradition composers, is a member of the Wandelweiser Group, an international consortium of composers who write very sparse, quiet compositions. On October 19, Extradition’s fall concert at Leaven Community Lutheran Church is dedicated to interpreting the natural world, featuring the music of Toshi Ichiyanagi, Sarah Hughes, Matthias Kaul, Luke Nickel and D.J. Wolf. They also have a Patreon, if you wish to support them and get perks like free tote bags and t-shirts.
Charles Rose is a composer, writer, and recent graduate of Portland State University. He is the sound engineer for FearNoMusic and a contributor to PSU’s journal Subito.
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