Fans of Beethoven

environmental sound situation

Inspired by online discussions as to which movement is “the best,” Fans of Beethoven repurposes recordings of several recent performances of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony to reveal the oft overlooked harmony of pure air in motion (as in Teplice).

A more thorough discussion of this piece in the context of my PhD portfolio:

Fans of Beethoven:

environmental sound situation

Fans of Beethoven calls for two full range and preferably large speakers to be placed on the stage or in the performance area of a venue usually used for concerts. The venue should be lit and seating provided as would be the case for a performance to take place. A stereo track, 27 minutes long, is played in a continuous loop commencing before the first visitor arrives and concluding after the last leaves. The loudspeakers should be adjusted to a volume at which the sound fills the space, provokes the resonances of the room and can be felt physically. The sound should be quite full, and suggestive of a great deal of presence, but not to the point of pain.

The sound material in the work consists of audience applause, incidental and environmental sound from concert venues, and various performances of a specific chord taken from live recordings of recent performances of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The mood of this piece was partially suggested by passionate online debates regarding which movement of this symphony is the ‘best’. Thematic and material subtexts of the piece weave material paths from sonic transcendence to absurdity and pathos. These subtexts will be discussed briefly below. However, any narrative or subtext in the work is secondary to the temporal unfolding of the sound in a visitor’s experience.

Without a point of reference, a visitor enters the space at any point in the audio track. Their experience begins then, and they will construct a sense of what they are hearing based on this. Sonically, there are three main textures of which the piece is made. The first is a dense broadband noise, the second an extended chord forming a continuum, and the lastthird consists of muffled and diffuse sounds suggestive both of catering work and orchestral rehearsal. All of these function in ways that suggest meaningful completion by a listener.

The dense broadband noise presents an immersive relationship of scale to a listener, and a sense of temporal stasis. However, closer listening will reveal a great deal of detail and even teleology within the cloud. I have composed some of the trajectories that can be heard in this noise wash, but others are the result of relationships emerging from combinations of micro-variations in the harmonic materials of the broadband noise. Artefacts in the recordings and the pattern-structuring functions of a listener’s own mind complete the picture. As in the case when listening to a waterfall, a great deal of what is heard is actually one’s own structuring mechanism grasping for order in a continuously changing situation.

Moving inward from the immersive broadband noise, the next texture, that of an extended chordal continuum, suggests penetrability. This texture abruptly begins, and then glacially fades to nothing. Tiny changes in tuning and accent within the continuum of sound are emphasized. This approach invites internal modes of listening, in the manner of the beating intervals often used by Morton Feldman and Giacinto Scelsi, however, this chord also redirects the listener back to its surface. It is not penetrable, despite its luxurious invitation. Redirected to the surface of the sound, the paradoxically static paradoxical simultaneous presence of perceived stasis and moving sound provides movement provide a tracery illustrating framing the ceaseless now.

The third main texture in the work enters while the chord continues. This is a mixture of undirected independent instrumental sounds, constructed from recordings that included orchestral pre-concert warm-ups and the sounds of workers clearing away catering following a performance. Vocoded with the sounds of rain, this texture takes on a sombre tone, rich and dark. The muffled voices and irregularly looped instrument sounds suggest both small melodic motives, accompanied by a difficult to define sense of labour. These sounds seem to struggle and interfere with one another, and there is no centre of focus, apart from the suggestion that a listener is eavesdropping on sounds of work being done by others, unintentional and not intended to be heard.

In all three of these textures there are a great deal of elements for a listener to work with in terms of constituting meaningful structure and perhaps memory-based representational associations from what is heard. A great deal of material presented in this piece lends itself to associative chains of meaning should listeners apprehend or construct ideas around the source of the sounds. The noise texture, for example, is based on audience applause vocoded with the sound of ventilating fans to create a wash of sound that suggestions vague pitch trajectories and a river-like quality. Therefore, a listener who picks up representational cues in these sounds may find their associations oscillating between images of moving water and a concert hall!

Furthermore, the violence of the applause and cheering suggests the maddening and frightening effect of being immersed in a crowd and moved along against one’s will in the current of a human torrent. Voices in this texture are vocoded with variants of the chord that will soon enter, creating a subtle trajectory towards this new texture. This creates an alien quality in which voices first seem to scream or cry out, then sing, with a tone more like metallic string instruments or organ pipes than voices.

The suggestivity of these sounds, in combination with the staging of this piece, creates a narrative frame present in this work that is not explicit in other portfolio works. While for me this involves themes of mortality, artistic intentions, individuals and societies, the madness of fandom, the pursuit of fame, the alluvial spreading forth of material in nature at river deltas and glacial moraines, the somewhat violent mechanical wind produced by ventilating fans, beauty, communication, and Beethoven’s Seventh, I do not expect the audience to specifically share in these. The dense and ambiguous nature of the sound textures are composed to present structures that are foregrounded only to collapse back inside themselves leaving the listener uncertain as to whether the sounds were intentionally placed there by the composer or their own minds. For me, this somewhat mirrors the experience of attempting to understand the minds of others, even those with whom we are closest. Yet to this situation is added the possibility for schema-based narratives to evolve, and possibly for fans of Beethoven, even some of a historicist nature. Although a fixed media work in terms of the broadcast audio, it remains an open system when situated with listeners in the circumstances called for in the score.

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