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Monthly Archives: March 2008

Sonic Acts X11 – A report by Scylla Magda
Curator – Co-ordinator Modulate / Audio Visual Arts

This years Sonic Acts X11 in Amsterdam,’The Cinematic Experience’ was a beautifully put together combination of  live music and audio visual performances, exhibitions, talks, and film screenings. 

For me, a reoccurring theme throughout Sonic Acts X11, was silence. Being a mother of an extremely talkative five year old, the first thing I was looking forward to was the opportunity to spend five days in my own, with the time/space /quietness to reflect, experience and absorb – a rare opportunity, and one made possible by  STEIM  who let me stay in their artist accommodation for the duration of the festival.

On Thursdays pre opening night of the festival I attended the screening of Stan Brakhage‘s, ‘Dog Star Man’ , it felt immensely refreshing to be seated in a quiet movie theatre, for over an hour, watching a silent film. On the way out , i overheard two people talking about how, for them, it had been an excruciating endurance test!

Afterwards I went to the The Drone People at the Paradiso, a four hour concert featuring BJ Nilsen, Joachim Nordwall, C.Spenser Yeh Hildur Gudnadottir, Carl Michael von Hausswollf and  Mika Vainio – whose releases such as Metri (Sahko), and the first Panasonic album Vakio, I found particularly cathartic in the mid nineties. The effect of the continuous drone performances, set in the wonderfully apt venue, through a great sound system, was physical as well as aural, at times a sonic pummeling, at times a gentler textural immersion. Coming straight from a purely visual silent movie experience to a pure sound experience was an interesting contrast , and illustrated well the point Ken Jacobs made couple of days later where he argued the case for being selective about which sense to focus on at one time, in particular not adding sound to image unnecessarily, (& visa versa), except in the rare occurrence of a true audio visual artwork. 

“Its about intensity of experience, letting things come through instead of confusing what’s there with an overlay of another expression’…the 3-ring circus was a terrible idea, a scattering of attention and a perfect example of more is less.”

He showed examples of silent film, ruined by the overlay of sound, and talked about how the effect of music added to a scene was to dictate how to feel about it, not letting the viewer have the space /silence to arrive at their own thoughts. He showed us some of his own silent films, Orchard Street and Window, and also gave a magic lantern performance later in the festival.

I missed the first conference keynote talk ‘the Diamora Revisited’ by Erkki Huhtao , which I heard was excellent, (I was too busy enjoying a lie in) but made it to ‘The Defeat of Time’ a discussion on Drone by Carl Michael von Hausswollf and Joachim Nordwall. Hausswollf described how as a boy growing up in the Swedish countryside, he would put on his snow shoes, go deep into the snow filled forest,  and stand still, experiencing a profound silence. He said that Drone music was perhaps his way of getting back to that experience /feeling, in a similar way that other people might use meditation. Joachim Nordwall said that for him it was a way of recreating a particular time /place/feeling, in his case, of a room where aged 15 he first experimented with drugs, drones and analog synths.

Over the next couple of days there were many more artists, writers and theoreticians who spoke about, or demonstrated their own experiments in inducing / experiencing enhanced sensory perception/reaching an inner silence through immersion in sound / image , or blurring  boundaries between the individual sense of self and the outer world.

Media artist Ulf Langheinrich talked about projects of his aimed at achieving a direct sensory impact through the use of flicker, and on ‘effecting interference movements between the perceptive and processing potential of the eye-brain-apparatus’.

Tez gave a realtime performance using flicker video and surround sound binaural beats,  ‘producing and audio visual stimulus which allows moving visual patters to emerge directly in the brain of the viewer/listener ‘ – a contemporary dream machine.

Kurt Hentschlager told of how his Feed’ performance, also using flicker, was designed to induce sensory overload. This has, on occasion caused a number of people to black out.

Writer and theoretician Arjen Mulders  talked about  ‘extramedial’ , ‘the filmic’ in movies , as a ‘feeling of silence and stillness at the heart of the event ‘…’movement may be the essence of film, but its effect on the viewer is unfathomable silence. cannot capture the extramedial but you can cause it too appear. 

He said that for him the ‘extramedial’ was an antidote to the media theory that he is constantly engaged in, which made me think that a way to reach an inner silence away from all that living in the head , might be particularly useful for the more theoretical artists & academics. Although using flicker as a way to alter the visual cortex would seem quite an extreme way to try to achieve this.

His talk provoked the most controversy amongst musicians in the audience, as he appeared to be saying that the extramedial could only be reached by the visual. A number of people said that what he called the ‘filmic’ moment could and often was, be produced by sound, not image, another commented that sound seemed to be a ‘black spot’ throughout the media conference, some one else pointed out that recent research was challenging the primacy of the visual. 

However I think he was really only talking about his own experience of extramedial, which happened to be visual. Throughout the talks I attended everyone seemed pretty much to be talking about their attempts to reach or create similar experiences, only using different medium and method to get there.

For myself, nothings beats the live improvised performance of abstract electronic music to create a feeling of ‘being in the moment’ – as a live performance is itself. Even though I appreciated all of the exhibition installations, the films and the talks that I made it to, the highlight of the festival for me was performances by Signal, and Ryoichi Kurokawa. 

Although the music of Signal the (Raster- Noton) ‘supergroup’ comprising Carsten Nicolai  Frank Bretschneider, and  Olaf Bender and can definitely be appreciated independently of visual in a recorded medium, in a live setting their performance was a powerful audio visual synergy.  I often close my eyes to better focus on the music, but somehow, even with the massive projection screen behind them, this wasn’t necessary, the visuals being abstract enough that instead of being a distraction they became a part of the overall experience, without really needing to ‘watch them. I confess though that I did stop being in the moment for long enough to imagine an alternative setting for a performance of theirs, perhaps a warehouse space filled with people dancing. At the Paradiso it was largely seated, and a more ‘in the body’ sensual response such as dancing  would seem an appropriate audience reaction to the creative energies being put out by Signal. 

This was the second time I have experienced a Ryoichi Kurokawa performance and it was just as beautiful, both visually and sonically as the first. I felt that this was something that could justifiably be described as ‘Live Cinema’  (not that Ryoichi uses this term himself) and wondered whether Douglas Kahn, another  speaker saw it & if so what he thought of it. In his talk he seemed quite put out by the appropriation of the term ‘Live Cinema’ by some of todays artists engaged in the performance of live generated audio visual, since examples that he had witnessed had struck him as only relatively unsophisticated ‘VJ’ing’ , which was  certainly not the case with Ryoichi Kurokawa, a consummate artist.

On the Sunday I experienced some of the Acousmonium, a sound diffusion system, or ‘speaker orchestra’ designed in Paris in 1974 consisting of 80 speakers of all different shapes and sizes, placed across a stage at varying hight and distances according to their range, power, quality and directional characteristics. This had a real charm to it visually, lit with ultra violet lighting, and an immersive sonic quality ‘ it puts you inside the sound. Its like the interior of a sound universe ‘ said Francoiuse Bale after designing it. I didn’t catch all the performances but I particularly enjoyed the Hans-Joachim Rodedelius piece.

Finally, my own ‘silent moment’ occurred just before the festival  began. After arriving on the wednesday night, traveling by tram from the main train station, towards where i was staying, my brain was hyperactive, many of my thoughts were nostalgic, having lived in Holland many years previously with my partner, and I also felt slightly anxious, as I get lost very easily. Looking out of the tram window I saw an enormous full moon over Amsterdam, and the image itself, combined with an awareness (rather than a thought) of the moon shining simultaneously over Birmingham, produced a shift that gave me a feeling of calmness.