David Toop’s latest book, Sinister Resonance, subtitled ‘The Mediumship of the Listener’, makes much of a remark by Marcel Duchamp: ‘One can look at seeing; one can’t hear hearing.’ What I heard – or think I heard – at Instal 2010(Tramway, Glasgow) the other night seems to suggest otherwise.
Earlier in the year, the House Project began with two sound artists, Jean-Luc Guionnet and Eric La Casa, being invited into four Glasgow homes, and the householder asked to play their favourite music, to identify their favourite room and to talk about their acoustic environment while a roving microphone, as it were, went exploring. They were also asked to comment on the recordings when they were played back to them on headphones. You can listen to the original recordings made at the time here. (See also this blog post by a guinea-pig for their next project).
But we heard almost none of this during the live performance. On stage were three musicians and two actors, listening to carefully edited and co-ordinated versions of these recordings played to them through headphones. The actors seemed to be responding to a spoken-word track, repeating the voices word-for-word as far as they could. The musicians seemed to be responding to a track consisting largely of ambient sounds, mimicking with their instruments (a prepared guitar, a saxophone and a basic drum kit) the sound of doors opening and closing, floorboards creaking, toilets flushing, the music playing on the stereo. Occasionally, excerpts from the raw field recordings were played through loudspeakers, as well as some spoken word samples taken from elsewhere.
It is quite hard to describe, and may well sound like a recipe for disaster. But it made sense. It was intriguing, unpredictable and often funny–though it’s true some of the humour came from the foreign accent (real or feigned) of one of the actors that meant his performance sounded at times like a routine by Peter Sellers or Sacha Baron Cohen.
It was also unsettling because of the way it turned conventional relationships on their head. For example, this was not free improvisation. The actors and musicians were not just following some previously discussed guidelines; they were effectively realising a score. But a score that took the form of recorded sounds rather than notated paper, and one revealed to the performers – for the first time perhaps? – in real time, so that what we witnessed was a cross between an aural test and sight reading.
The ‘score’ did seem to allow enough latitude, though, to make us think again about hearing and listening. About how they are, even at their most passive, still activities – improvisations, even (to cite Toop a second time) – which involve fluctuating levels of attention, changing focus and depth of field. Damn, I’ve resorted to visual metaphors again. Perhaps the only way you can avoid them is to, well, listen to people listening.