+++ Tired Hearts Kick Darkness And Bleed Light

01 May 2018
+++ - Tired Hearts Kick Darkness And Bleed Light
Companion Essay by Garrett Johnson
“Spectres of Movement and the Machinic Canon”

Cinema is the the art of letting ghosts come back, offers Jacques Derrida in the 1983 film Ghost Dance. What he refers to as hauntology encompasses more than film; Derrida suggests that the capacity of emergent digital technologies of representation and their ability to reproduce images and sound would only strengthen the spectral power of ghosts in our lives.

What follows is a reflection on a performance of the dance duet Tired hearts kick darkness and bleed light (credit: Britta Peterson and Juan Rodriguez) as well as the accompanying cello and electronics dubbed onto this cassette, pointing to the poetic interplay between movement and spectrality, sound and sense, recording and listening.

In the duet, Peterson and Rodriguez modulate flows of intimacy through touch, gaze, and closeness to retrace the emergences of formalities and distance in dyadic familial relationships. The work is presented in the round to leave an openness for a more immediate and reciprocal exchange between the traditionally isolated performer and audience, enfolding the group into a shared affective world.

These dynamics are likely not immediately apparent on this cassette tape. Instead, what figure in the foreground are the sounds of the improvised cello and live electronics in a semi-enclosed, outdoor concrete breezeway. Recorded in January 2017 at a dance festival in the urban desert, this tape isn’t put forth as an autonomous art work which “stands on its own” from that dance performance. Instead, let’s take this audio cassette as an artifact produced by a strange apparatus for registering movement. This assemblage encompasses the moving bodies, the audience, the concrete architecture, the cello corpus and sounding strings, and the Sonoran winter air. We extend this apparatus now through our stereo playback systems, which afford us the opportunity to listen with movement.

There is a productive relationship between movement and sound as sense-making, which co-construct an embodied temporality shared across molecular ensembles of biology and matter which are always already in moto perpetuo. Binding stuff into overwrought and deterministic categories (like sense, subject, sound, media, movement) fails when our focus is the relational and co-articulated (e.g. an art performance). By rebuking neat and tidy ontologies currently en vogue, we unfurl the possibilities of dealing with sound and movement as a complex group phenomena in which roles (like listening, sounding, moving, gazing, watching) emerge and dissipate collectively as a continuous fabric of sensation.

In mechanically reproduced media (CDs, tapes, mp3s), sound does not surface unhinged from the movements that produced it; rather, the registration of acoustic vibrations – a mosaic of discrete samples, a crucifixion of energies and intensities to timestamps – is insufficient to particular regions of movement (like dancing bodies). In other words, audio recordings are mechanical etchings of movement. Like the ink marbling these cassette shells registers the fluid dynamics of a water basin, this recording is imprinted by the crisp January air and the cold reverberant space resonated with warm bodies. Movement’s resonant echoes permeate through (and persist with) the recording, haunted by spectral tracings of the dancers’ motions, the fluctuations of air, and the arrivals and departures from the international airport passing overhead.

Responding to, framing, and encouraging the movers’ dynamic changes in intensities, the cello feeds into pitch shifters and dynamic delay lines coded in Max/MSP. This technical ensemble affords the improvisational variance of timbral thickness as well as spatialization across a multi-channel speaker array — expansions of the cello’s physical acoustics.

The only so-called “pre-compositional” element of the musical score is an unusually long delay, which repeats the first eight minutes of the processed cello’s stereo signal through two dedicated speakers. This process recalls the canon, a musical genre in which one musical voice is accompanied by one or more voices which play the same musical material offset by some rhythmic value (often between a half and a couple measures), a pitch interval (unison, fifth, etc.), or some more intricate contrapuntal variation (such as in retrograde, faster or slower, etc.). A distinguishing hallmark of Renaissance and high Baroque composition, the canon was preceded by different forms of circle dances, such as the Chace of the French Ars Nova, the Italian Caccia, and, of course, the English round in their imitative techniques.

Historically, canon accompaniments were not distributed as written-out parts, but rather were derived in performance according to their written description (e.g. Canon alla Duodecima in contrapunto alla Terza from J.S. Bach’s Kunst der Fuge). These descriptions work then as solutions for encoded musical material. Indeed some “puzzle canons” were not accompanied with a cipher; their solutions were revealed only through experimentation and close study. This is a kind of musical encryption. Caesarian Shift encryption works in a similar way with strings of text, altering letters by adding a designated value to each letter’s ASCII index (A=1, B=2, C=3 etc. becomes MNO in “rot12,” a transform of +12). After 26, the numbers wrapped back to 1, hence the name “rotation.”

The performance system for Tired Hearts flips the “puzzle canon” logic on its head. The solution is already given; it is the encrypted material (the improvised music) which is constrained by this coded score: a machinic musical canon. Another example of this is Brian Eno’s analogue reworking of Pachelbel’s Canon in D, made by layering re-recordings of several heterogeneously cut loops of magnetic tape. In Eno’s work, the musical canon results from 1. the length of each tape loop, and 2. how Eno chose to layer them on the final recording. The latter are Eno’s aesthetic and compositional decisions, while the former resembles the canon code programmed into the tape’s material. Unlike the formal abstraction of the “puzzle canons” which can only work at the molar level of notes and rhythms, both the Eno and the Tired Hearts machinic canon operate on continuous streams of sound.

Here, my use of machine echoes Deleuze and Guattari, which is distinguished from purely mechanical conceptions of machine: “a true abstract machine pertains to an assemblage in its entirety: it is defined as the diagram of that assemblage” (A Thousand Plateaus 91). The inverse relation between improvised musical content and the algorithmically coded formal constraints work as an abstract machine tracing the relations of the musical-dramaturgical system. To perform with this system is to improvise an auto-obligato – a sonic-gestural sequence anticipating its echo – at once solo and duo, accompaniment and accompanied. The canon has a particular relationship to spectrality. A lingering ghost haunting texture and space, fuzzifying “singular actors” (networks, people, place/space) into multitudes.

A twist: the delay failed in the performance featured on this recording.

For a moment, I was humbled by this admonishing reminder of the fragility of code, rules, and scores. But this rupture, caused by a software bug, left the door open for a phantom atmosphere. For the performance, for the audience and the performers, for the wind and the concrete, the “lost” recorded musical content was never absent, but its role in shaping the dramaturgy shifted.

Like the water in which the cassette is marbled, the event’s potentialities –its flows and affects, bodies and architectures– are excited by actualizing, undulating fields of movements; the tape is an impression of movement. As part of an apparatus for musical experience, this cassette tape invites the listening with these layers of spectrality melded together into an additive lacquer: the traces of the performers’ movement, their resonances in the space, and the diffractions of sound off the concrete walls and absorbed by their fleshy bodies, and the spectral multiplicity of the machinic canon.

thx: britta, evan, juan, derek, zach, adam, ron, xin wei, pamela, and pat
  • 1. Side A (09:26)
  • 2. Side B (09:26)
+++ - Tired Hearts Kick Darkness And Bleed Light +++ - Tired Hearts Kick Darkness And Bleed Light
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