bilateral kellerberrin

May 20, 2005

Cunderdin High School Workshops Day 4

Filed under: education? — Lucas @ 3:47 pm

The final workshop with the Cunderdin students. Last week, we all had a good time mucking around with music. So we decided to continue with that theme. Since recent developments in my own project have centred around this idea of “feedback,” I thought that might be a good place to start this time.

We all carried in the carload of audio-visual equipment and music-making junk, and began to set it up. This was Trevor’s idea: that the students are involved in the workshop from start to finish – unloading, plugging in, switching on, making one bit of technology link up to another. It’s a good idea, too. The class is “Multimedia and Information Communication Technology,” and all that behind-the-scenes stuff is just as much a part of “communication” as the glorious act of utterance itself. Also, getting the kids to help bring in all the stuff means Trevor, Felena and I can have a cup of tea during recess, rather than busting our guts.

First, we fired up Trevor’s trusty laptop and I showed them my blog. I told them that this is what I’d been doing with my residency here in Keller, writing every day, and that they too were documented in it. I found the report on the last workshop, which has some photos of their workshop process too. Of course, everyone loves/hates looking at photos of themselves, so that was engrossing.

There wasn’t time to go through all the text that I’d written about them, nor did I really want to get into it. It’s kind of strange, because when I write these post-mortems about the education sessions, they are really just a way of trying to understand what went on, and maybe to record some stuff that might be useful (or improved upon) in the future. What the school itself makes of all of this – of me coming in and occupying space and time in the curriculum, I can only guess. Perhaps the “leave a reply” function at the bottom of these blog entries will be used by Trevor or any of the students, and I will be enlightened…

* * * * *

Carrying on with my grand scheme to make Cunderdin the “1970s performance art and experimental music” capital of the wheatbelt, I played Alvin Lucier’s I am Sitting in a Room (1970). The beauty of this sound piece is that its “explanation” is embedded within the work itself. Hence, as it begins, you hear a male voice with an American accent stating the following:

I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of r-r-r-rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity nnnnnot so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to s-s-smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.

And that is exactly what Lucier does: he records himself saying all this, then plays back the recording and records it, then plays back the recording of the recording, and records that, and so on ad infinitum. The first half a dozen times, you begin to hear what the Cunderdin students described as “echoes” – the speech sound becomes more “distant” or “hollow.” And then, after five minutes or so, the echoes begin to have odd edges to them – like twinges of harmonic sound that were not there before. This phenomenon increases with each iteration. The original spoken words seem to recede, and the harmonics begin to dominate.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the speech “disappears entirely” – at the twelve minute mark, you can still pick out the words, but maybe only because you already know what they are. By the seventeen minute mark, the voice is all but gone: and has been replaced by an extraordinary sound. It’s very difficult to describe this sound: for me it’s “kind of metallic” – or a bit like the sounds a swing makes in a playground if it hasn’t been well oiled. As one commentator writes, “Fifteen minutes into the composition, Lucier’s speech has become a hazy cloud of wavering, bell-like tones…”

The version I have of I am Sitting in a Room goes for about 45 minutes, but Lucier’s banal “speech” has been converted into “music” long before this point. I think the piece, despite the author’s intention as articulated in the text, was mainly, for the Cunderdin kids, the “demonstration of a physical fact.” It brought home the idea that any raw material can be used to make music. In effect, Lucier has constructed a custom instrument. That instrument is the room itself, and no two rooms will sound the same. It’s a bit like the chamber inside a guitar or violin, which resonates in response to the nearby string being made to vibrate.

* * * * *

I was keen to show them a video piece by Sedon Pepper and Drew Wooton, called Everybody Needs (2001?). Felena had a copy of this on her laptop. Sedon and Drew are Perth artists. In “Everybody Needs” they chop up fragments from the soapie Neighbours. The result is hilarious, and kinda disturbing. Their source material is 1980s Neighbours – the golden era with Craig McLoughlin , Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, big hair, and stonewash jeans.

Small gasps or breaths which are part of normal speech are looped and repeated by the obsessive editing of Everybody Needs. In this way, a character is transformed into a heavy breathing maniac. Or a tense moment within a scene is cut into miniscule pieces and replayed back again and again, which blows the tension all out of proportion, and sometimes uncovers the hidden and sinister nature of the residents of Ramsay Street.

For our purposes, the piece generated fascinating rhythms and melodies, simply by selecting them from a found source. Of course, the opportunity to “talk back” to pop culture is an irresistable by-product – to be able to manipulate these characters who have had such an impact on our lives. Felena suggested that a similar process might certainly be possible as a workshop for Cunderdin in the future.

* * * * *

As I sit here writing this, I realise that the focus of this material was all about speech. Therefore, it would have been a logical development to get the students to “make music with speech.” It could have been fun too, to have that restriction: come up with a piece of music utilising only the voices of the group members. Obviously, though, that idea is emerging two days late. Never mind.

With the idea of “feedback” in mind, we listened back to the recordings of their performances from last week. The work by the “rhythm” group came through very strongly in recording, whereas the water piece was very subtle, and the microphone white noise was instrusive. I tried to point out the different experience we as an audience could have – between watching the performance live, and listening to it back as “pure” audio. For one thing, Creed pointed out, the performers themselves could listen back to their own work in a detatched way– which was totally different to the experience of making it.

With all the time taken up by listening and watching material, we only had about 20 minutes for practical music-making in this workshop. I had brought more or less the same materials as last week – empty wine bottles, metal kitchen junk, balloons, the exploding things from inside christmas crackers etc.

By now, they knew the drill, and once Trevor had allocated the groups, they got working pretty quickly. For some reason, a big thing for all the groups this week was percussion. Perhaps it was something to do with letting off steam, but there was a whole lotta banging and crashing going on in the library on Thursday. (The thought only occurred to me on the way home to Keller, that our “noisemaking” workshops had all taken place in the school library, traditionally a place of studious tranquility!)

The first group to perform consisted of Nicola, Brock, Reece, and a fourth chap who hadn’t come to class before, and I can’t remember his name. They had hung up metal objects with string, from the metal structure in the library’s ceiling. This was designed to increase the resonance of the objects – they then make a nice “chiing!” as opposed to a dull “clunk” if you were holding them in your hand. It also served a functional purpose – the musicians were able to communicate with each other while playing, as their objects were hanging at height which made eye contact comfortable.

Nicola had been part of the “water music” group last week, but chickened out of performing. This week, however, she was the lynchpin of her group, playing three “instruments” as well as directing the other members. She used a spoon to scrape the surface of the plastic typewriter case, then made two high pitched “dings” on the side of a wine bottle, followed by a lower “dang” as she hit a suspended metal sandwich tray. Brock would then strike his makeshift cymbal thing once, and between the two of them, a rhythm and pattern were established. This repeating motif was underscored by Reece’s low drumbeat produced by stretching and releasing the dangly bit at the bottom of an inflated balloon. The fourth member (whose name I can’t remember) made subtle and somewhat random sounds on the typewriter.

The second group consisted of Rohan, Hayden, and Elwin. Rohan was the prime mover here. He constructed a set of drumsticks for himself out of jerry-rigged toilet rolls, and made a primitive drumkit – consisting of a tin drinks tray, a bell, and a broken vegie steamer. He bashed away on these items with great relish, in a kind of extended “drum solo.” Hayden balanced Rohan’s wild abandonment with a more sober rhythm, made up of two taps on the table, followed by a tap on a wine bottle. All of this was underwritten by Elwin, who chose not to use any of the junk I had brought, and instead made his body into a didgeridoo by holding his hands in a certain way to his lips and breathing through them. The piece had no lack of energy and intensity.

The final group (Adam and Creed) made rhythm of an entirely different register. They used the rope quoits as their drumsticks, striking them on overturned plastic recycling bins and storage crates. This made a low pitched (and quite pleasant) tom-tom sound, which they organised in groups of three (bang-bang-bang-pause-bang-bang-bang etc). This formed the basic structure of the piece, but it was punctuated in the middle by a high pitched metallic clang, when Creed struck the metal leg of the table with a toast rack. Then they returned to the basic rhythm. One of the things I liked about this piece was that Adam and Creed would sometimes be in perfect time with each other, and other times they would be slighty off. Perhaps they didn’t play for long enough for this tension to develop further – I would have liked to see if they could play with different “phase” lengths – and thus get more and more out of synch, to the point that they are in synch again. Certainly, given their musical backgrounds, these two would be in a position to grasp and attempt this kind of complexity.

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