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"Listening echoes //// soundscapes & sonic interventions" blog

MARCH LISTENING TOGETHER: Devotional Cinema and Musique Concrete

Many thanks to Paul Ebenkamp for his comprehensive & deft "minutes":



Maya, Laura, Sebastian, Paul and Angela met to discuss Nathaniel Dorsky’s “Devotional Cinema” and to listen to some works of musique concrete (see appendix A).

All five of us had the book with us and had read it, which was cool.

We read “Devotional Cinema” because its ideas about how film was perceived by its audience seemed to lend themselves to thinking about sound perception in similar and dissimilar circumstances.

Dorsky writes that the way we experience film is metonymic/mimetic of the way we experience “the world”: simultaneously whole unto itself AND discontinuous, intermittent, asymbolic, non-literary, laced with patterns and echoes of purely perceptual making and constituted in/of a kind of time that is not regular or (ac)countable, its quickenings and lulls drifting and swelling on/in an empty NOW that has no solid/technical/particular/abstract parameters of beginnings/middles/ends of fixed duration, etc.

We discussed, for purposes of sound study, the idea that sensory reception both precedes and is synonymous with perception – i.e. there is nothing materially beyond the sensory moment of NOW, the immediate happening of sound and vision; that material creates structure (or that material may/can/should be allowed/induced to create structure), not the other way around. Material is here defined, I think, as everything from the whole world around us to the neurons that trace/limn/mimic and generally fit us like a glove to that world, and includes all the necessary difficult or elegant cuts/edits/long shots in between. That’s a very important point in Dorsky’s book.

There is a marriage of pure perception and technical know-how:

--“The quality of light, as experienced in a film, is intermittent. At sound speed there are twenty-four images a second, each about a fiftieth of a second in duration, alternating with an equivalent period of black. So the film we are watching is not actually a solid thing. It only appears to be solid. On a visceral level, the intermittent quality of film is close to the way we experience the world. We don’t experience a solid continuum of existence. Sometimes we are here and sometimes not, suspended in some kind of rapid-fire illusion. After all, do any of us know who we actually are? Although we assume that we are something solid, in truth we only experience and maneuver through our existence.”

Furthermore, in discussing the idea of alternation on this subperceptual metabolic level:

--“Intermittence penetrates to the very core of our being, and film vibrates in a way that is close to this core. It is as basic as life and death, existence and nonexistence. My own instinct is that the poles of existence and nonexistence alternate at an extremely fast speed, and that we float in that alternation. We don’t experience the nonexistence, the moments between existence; there is no way to perceive these moments as such. But accepting their presence aerates life, and suffuses the solid world with luminosity.

According to him, with especial relevance to sound study: while watching a film that was crafted in an attitude of devotion (towards self and world), we can feel ourselves in a frame of mind that is a sensorially concentrated iteration of how we feel when beholding ourselves and others in the world, or in one world among worlds. This is the mimetic function of art raised to the level of a spiritual discipline.

I’m reminded of what Godard said about time and order in a film: “a film must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”


Some of the most interesting discussion centered around Dorsky’s notes on editing:

--“The cuts are the clarity that continually reawakens the view.”

--“If there is too much self, there is too much view. This imbalance often manifests as the empty vanity of composition that overwhelms a less-felt subject matter. On the other hand, if there is too much subject matter, then there is no view. This imbalance ignores or sacrifices the visual fabric of film, which is its strongest aspect, and the image becomes to illustrative. In either case the film’s vision is one-dimensional.”

--“The camera must give itself completely and wholly to its subject, yet it cannot give itself away to its subject.”

These thoughts on editing (“shots and cuts”) are of note for the purposes of sound study because the perception of sound seems so dependent on what I’ll lamely call foreground and background.

What we choose to listen to, for whatever conscious or unconscious reasons, is closely tied to what we’ve chosen not to listen to.

For example: the birds singing outside my window are closer to me and are making noises that are louder and more varied than the garbage truck down the street, but the latter commands more of my attention. I could toy with ideas as to why this is, but the point is made that our experience of sound is partly structured through ideas of precedence and subsequence, and that timbral aspects such as volume, attack, decay, sustain, etc. are always comparative.

This generally squaring with precepts of structuralist theories of language: that what is is always defined by what is not.

However, devotional living would seem to discourage us from the path of fore- and background, to collapse that dualism between is and isn’t. Buddhist discourse typically (and in a sense perversely) employs dualist thinking in order to lay bare the meretriciousness of figure/ground thinking – and, over time, to eradicate dualism from our thought.

To experience, in ourselves, without prejudice or judgment, this comparative mental process (while attending to edits in a film or thinking of ideas of before/after and fore/aft in sound works) is to take a first step towards presence – and to grow conscious of the material through which our experience of reality is mediated is to take a first step towards transcending the more slavish aspects of that mediation into something like MINDFULNESS, which (for Dorsky) can flourish through the sort of “aeration” cited previously.

To be exposed in a devotional space to a deeper reality by a progression of shots and cuts is nicely summed up by this quote:

“The sudden shift in space caused by the cut enlivens the unnameable. This stimulation is beyond the subject on either side of the cut.”

In other words, a devotional space is an always-vanishing interstice between known quantities. Sound perception, purified of preconceived (naming) ideas, could be said to take place solely and eternally in this interstice.


Then we listened to some music:

--Pierre Schaeffer’s etude aux chemins de fer (railway study), which edits together chunks of rhythmic sound produced by trains to create a short work of varying rhythmic periodicity, indebted in a way to cubism in visual art and to the possibilities offered by electric tape machines and the advent of radio as a mode of perceptual organization;

--Edgard Varese’s poeme electronique (which incorporates allegorical ideas of history and architectural structures into its array of “bruits” [non-musical/environmental sounds]);

--Luc Ferrari’s Presque rien no. 1 which sort of invented the concept of “sound art” by carefully arranging prerecorded sounds in a longform composition whose sound-arranging function is less in service of a portrayal of ideas or an illustration of technical methods than to provide, in a deceptively simple/utilitarian way, a vehicle (in this case, a recording designed for attentive listening) for a continually enlivened experience of sound as it happened in a particular place and at a particular time: “The completed disappearance of abstract sounds; the first idea of minimalism.” Ferrari’s piece is a good subject of sound study because it demonstrates a kind of careful editing that is in service to the reality of the material (i.e. the sound of a Dalmatian coast fishing village at dawn) rather than a material unto itself dissociated from what it depicts.


At the beginning of 1948 Pierre Schaeffer took a trip to the Alps where he made the following observation:

“In today’s world, people return to nature using ski lifts, snow tractors, kandahar bindings, ultra-light alloys. And so, perfectly equipped, with chrome shoes, asbestos gloves, nylon clothes, they savor the clean mountain air. They find themselves caught between two fires, which burn and freeze them at the same time. One has to find a way of expressing that.”

It was shortly after this trip that Schaeffer, back in the studio, accidentally scratched a vinyl record and was overcome with wonder at the effects and possibilities of a “locked groove.” He also began experimenting with recording methods, for example by pressing the record button a moment after striking a bell, so that the attack was cut off, leaving only the “pure” vibration of the bell. By turning up the volume of its decay he could stretch it unnaturally. He became hypnotized by the notion of a “fragment of sound that has neither beginning nor end, burst of sound isolated from any temporal context, crystal of time with sharp edges.” He made a series of such sounds, cutting with his own lathe, each to its own disc and called them “objets sonores” (sound objects).

While preparing and recording sounds for “Etude aux chemins de fer” Schaeffer wrote:

“Six locomotives at the depot, as if surprised in their resting place. I ask the drivers to improvise. When one begins, the others will reply. These locomotives definitely have their own individual voices. One is hoarse, another raucous; one has a deep organum, another is strident. I record with passion the dialogue of these pliable whales.”

Cinq études de bruits (Five Studies of Noises) is a collection of musical compositions by Pierre Schaeffer. The five études were composed in 1948 and are the earliest pieces of musique concrète, a form of electroacoustic music that utilises recorded sounds as a compositional resource.

The five études were composed at the studio Schaeffer established at RTF (now ORTF), Studio d'Essai. They are:

1.     Étude aux chemins de fer - trains

2.     Étude aux tourniquets - toy tops and percussion instruments

3.     Étude violette - piano sounds recorded for Schaeffer by Boulez

4.     Étude noire - piano sounds recorded for Schaeffer by Boulez

5.     Étude pathétique - sauce pans, canal boats, singing, speech, harmonica, piano

The works were premiered via a broadcast on 5 October 1948, titled Concert de bruits.

 Edgard Varèse; Le Corbusier; Iannis Xenakis: Poeme Electronique

«Poème électronique» is the first, electronic-spatial environment to combine architecture, film, light and music to a total experience made to functions in time and space. Under the direction of Le Corbusier, Iannis Xenaki's concept and geometry designed the World's Fair exhibition space adhering to mathematical functions. Edgard Varèse composed the both concrete and vocal music which enhanced dynamic, light and image projections conceived by Le Corbusier. Varèse's work had always sought the abstract and, in part, visually inspired concepts of form and spatial movements. Among other elements for «Poème électronique» he used machine noises, transported piano chords, filtered choir and solo voices, and synthetic tone colorings. With the help of the advanced technical means made available through the Philips Pavilion, the sounds of this composition for tape recorder could wander throughout the space on highly complex routes. 
«The Philips Pavilion presented a collage liturgy for twentieth-century humankind, dependent on electricity instead of daylight and on virtual perspectives in place of terrestrial views.» 
(Source: Marc Treib, Space Calculated in Seconds, Princeton, 1996, p. 3)

Iannis Xenakis – Concret PH (1958) is a musique concrète piece by Iannis Xenakis originally created for the Philips Pavilion (designed by Xenakis as Le Corbusier's assistant) and heard as audiences entered and exited building (PH = paraboloïdes hyperboliques, concret = reinforced concrete/musique concrète). Edgard Varèse's Poème électronique was played once they where inside the building.

2 1/2 minutes long and focused primarily on density, Concret PH was created in the Philips office in Paris (Varèse having exclusive access to the studio with spatialization capabilities established in Eindhoven) or at the Groupe de Recherches Musicales. The only sound source is burning charcoal, cut into one-second fragments,[1] with numerous transpositions and overdubs; a granular texture from which Xenakis creates a continuum. Using slight manipulation, the main techniques where splicing, tape speed change, and mixing.[1] The piece was composed intuitively, rather than being guided by mathematical processes.[1] In the Philips Pavilion it was projected over 425 loudspeakers through an 11-channel sound system. Xenakis described the effect as "lines of sound moving in complex paths from point to point in space, like needles darting from everywhere."[2]

Start with a sound made up of many particles, then see how you can make it change imperceptibly, growing and developing, until an entirely new sound results... This was in defiance of the usual manner of working with concrète sounds. Most of the musique concrète which had been produced up to the time of Concret PH is full of many abrupt changes and juxtaposed sections without transitions. This happened because the original recorded sounds used by the composers consisted of a block of one kind of sound, then a block of another, and did not extend beyond this. I seek extremely rich sound (many high overtones) that have a long duration, yet with much internal change and variety. Also, I explore the realm of extremely faint sounds highly amplified. There is usually no electronic alteration of the original sound, since an operation such as filtering diminished the richness.

—Xenakis, Program notes, Nonesuch recording H-71246 quoted[1]

On Presque Rien, Luc Ferrari uses tape to simply amplify the already musical aspects of natural sound environments, increasing their rhythmic sensibilities or adding a slightly psychedelic atmosphere that creates the impression of the listener as the ultimate voyeur, peering not only at the external activities of the subjects, but also seemingly offering a view into their drifting thoughtforms. That Ferrari does this with such a steady and subtle touch is astounding in a field often marked by over-the-top, rather grand statements of cutting and splicing, and in his approach, he blurs the lines between abstraction, nature, ambiance, and music. 


From a 1988 interview w/ Dan Warburton on Paristransatlantic:

"Presque Rien N° 1" is still your most famous piece...

That's true. I wonder why that is.

For David Grubbs at least, it represents a new genre in contemporary music of that time, which he calls "Sound Art" as opposed to "Music Composition"... Was it a different compositional approach for you?

I wanted to be a radical as possible, and take it to the limit in terms of using natural sound, by not including any artificial, sophisticated sound at all. Once I'd done "Presque Rien N° 1" I didn't need to be that radical anymore. There's one landscape, a given time, and the radical thing is precisely that it's just one place at one specific time, daybreak.

What's nice about the "Presque Riens" is that you really notice the things you hear, and eventually there's a moment where sounds stand out more than they normally would. I went everywhere with my tape recorder and microphone, and I was in this Dalmatian fishing village, and our bedroom window looked out on a tiny harbour of fishing boats, in an inlet in the hills, almost surrounded by hills-which gave it an extraordinary acoustic. It was very quiet. At night the silence woke me up-that silence we forget when we live in a city. I heard this silence which, little by little, began to be embellished... It was amazing. I started recording at night, always at the same time when I woke up, about 3 or 4am, and I recorded until about 6am. I had a lot of tapes!

And then I hit upon an idea-I recorded those sounds which repeated every day: the first fisherman passing by same time every day with his bicycle, the first hen, the first donkey, and then the lorry which left at 6am to the port to pick up people arriving on the boat. Events determined by society. And then the composer plays! (Smiles) I'm free, I play with freedom... I think it's good to have a really strong concept-and then to forget it. If not, things can pass you by... You have to listen to your intuition.

How was the work received?

Very strangely! It was badly received by my GRM colleagues, who said it wasn't music! (Laughs) I remember the session where I played it to them in the studio, and their faces turned to stone... I was quite happy, because I thought it wasn't bad at all. It was recorded by Deutsche Grammophon for their famous "Avant Garde" series. It had some success in the States, probably because it came out at a time when people were into plans-séquences... They probably recognised it as being along those lines. Warhol's films, for example. Minimalism.






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