Sound is territory and our voices serve to define the physical space around us. Whenever we emit sound we are communicating valuable information that is so much more than language.
For years I've been thinking about how we experience sound; how to bathe in it, feel it with the entire body, and also how to listen dynamically. I myself tend to need to squirm or move around in concerts. Sitting is sometimes too much and I want to walk in order try to to feel the sound as it moves through the space. And so I began a path of inquiry that has led me to create a body of works that do not fit well into the tradition of contemporary music. Listening to a recording of one seems a bit absurd since it seems so unlike the original experience. There has not been much successful documentation of any of these pieces since the wide sweeps of sound do not translate well into a stereo recording.
We forget however, that recorded music has only been around for one century. Before that there was no way of knowing what anything sounded like unless we were in its physical presence. An oboe, a trumpet or a very wise but weak old man could only be heard via the acoustical properties of the space in which their sound was being transmitted. What has become of our relationship to physical space in our world where any sound can be transmitted in any place?
I'm also deeply involved in the idea of voice, both on literal and metaphorical levels. I've been concerned with how we generally experience the human voice in our contemporary urban society. More and more of our verbal communication exists through some form of technological interface, phones, TV, radio, intercoms. What has become of that kind of animal-like sense of hearing another living creature in a shared physical space? All kinds of valuable information (physical size, breath capacity, density of bone conduction) is transmitted from one animal or human to another. There is an infinite variety in the timbre of a voice we know well which describes the individual’s psychological state so effectively that we still crave the physical presence for “full” communication.
And so I began thinking about the nonverbal transmission of our voices, and the social repercussions of that in public space. Sound is, in fact, territory and our voices serve to define the physical space around us. In Ballade Orale, I’ve attempted to create an environment in which listeners are expected to walk through the different sonic sights and to respond to what they are hearing by their own vocal emissions. As the number of listeners grows or decreases, they are expected to respond to each other as well.
Ballade Orale is a sound installation/performance that leads audience members through a variety of sites, each with their own unique sonic properties and bodies of sound. Three performers are stationed next to three separate sound sources, a recording of bottles blowing and tea cups tinkling in a classroom, a resonant humming sound in a stairwell, and a boisterous recording of tamtams in a large, open hallway. At the beginning of the piece, a musical score was handed to each audience member with the following text:
Choose a specific song with or without words.
Sing this song in a variety of sonic environments and adapt it musically to the changes.
Listen for other songs and try to integrate them.
I can remember a sense of awe at the immersive experience of the first multichannel diffusions I heard in the electroacoustic concert series at Montreal's Dow Planetarium in the early 90's. I related immediately to how the sound had taken on properties of three-dimensionality. I wanted to make sound events like this, but the technology seemed not necessarily complicated but prohibitive. Any performance of a sound diffusion of this calibre would require a sound system to support eight or more separate channels. This however, has remained an important model for what I have often strived to achieve, albeit out of the concert hall and generally through unamplified means. In the interest of a truly immersive experience I have blurred the boundaries between spectacle and spectator, where the final outcome could be called more aptly an “experience.” We hear and respond freely with the most immediate and primary instrument, the voice. And by responding, we change the experience so that others will have an increasingly richer field of sonic material to respond to in turn.
Ballade Orale is an opportunity for the listener to be bathed in sound (from the site specific soundtrack and from the improvisatory vocalizations of the other listeners) and to respond freely with his or her own voice. I think of it as a kind of aural commons, where everyone is free to express vocally and be heard. The outcome is always one of giddy excitement over the breakdown of typical social behaviour. There is also a heightened sense of awareness of the acoustical properties of each space in which the piece is performed, a kind of enduring sonic memory and physical relationship that I believe gives a sense of place.