a loud whisper – Preparing Charlie Sdraulig’s ‘few’

I’m co-hosting a house concert and am preparing pieces for performance by Jessie Marino, Luke Nickel, David Pocknee, Charlie Sdraulig and myself. While I’ve been working on Charlie Sdraulig’s few (for solo voice) I’ve been getting an itch to reflect on the preparation process. The following is an attempt to work out some of the tangled connections of associations twisting around in my head as I engage with the piece. My plan is to write about the piece as new ideas and thoughts emerge.

few

I’ll let Charlie’s description of the piece set the scene:

few is for a person listening and responding to the sonic environment around them. Responses include: breath filtered through a variety of mouth shapes as well as tongue clicks, hums and whistles. These barely externalised sounds are an almost imperceptible trace of concentrated perceptual effort. There is often only a risk of these sounds being produced and then heard.[1]

The score indicates that the piece be performed “alone, to yourself, or to a few others very close to you,” and in a “very quiet environment.”[2] When Charlie completed the piece in 2013 I was intrigued in having a go with it. The piece was an invitation in many ways. It appeared as though Charlie had made a piece that anyone willing to spend a few minutes acclimatizing themselves to could jump into and learn something about their aural environment. That said, I wanted to dig deep with the piece, and at that time, wasn’t able to imagine a personally satisfying performance situation. While the idea of performing the piece alone or to myself was interesting to me, as was the idea of performing for only a few others very close to me, the ambiguity of Charlie’s performance directions—the seeming possibility of devising a performance that simultaneously represented/confused those three modes of performance—most appealed to me.

The other interesting aspect of this piece for me was the notion of a very quiet environment and the ambient sound(s) therein. As a result of a very gradual transformation in my listening practices over the last six months, with a tendency towards a heightened awareness of sound detection and a renewed playfulness with respect to types of listening, this notion of a very quiet environment was an issue I wanted to explore through performance.

Over the last two weeks working on the piece, my imagination of a satisfying performance solution has started to come into focus. This is a result of time spent:

  • thinking about intimacy
  • exploring binaural recording techniques
  • considering the impact of introducing headphone technology
  • performing the piece alone
  • working in a semi-anechoic chamber
  • listening back to the act of performing the piece alone
  • teasing out the idea that the recording of the piece can be treated as an augmentation to a sonic environment

A Trajectory of Imagination

When I finally decided to prepare few I was interested in the possibility of staging a 1-to-1 performance with each person coming to an upcoming house concert. However, it became clear that performing the piece 1-to-1 with each person would take the length of an evening in itself and would not allow me to perform any of the other pieces I wanted to play. This led me to consider the possibility of video-recording a performance of the piece to be played back in my bedroom. The video recording would take place in my room and be displayed on a video screen placed in precisely the location that I was positioned in during the video recording. The idea was very simply to create a virtual presence and provide an opportunity for people to enter into the room on a 1-by-1 basis for an experience of the piece.

Seeking inspiration for the imagined work with video, I revisited Judith Cardiff and George Bures’ audio/video walks and became interested in the way they used binaural audio recording to create a more immersive auditory scene. Given the recording technology, headphones became a prerequisite, which brought into focus issues related to types of listening afforded or suggested by having sounds mediated though headphones. Most obvious is a headphone’s capacity to transform public spaces into private spaces. Or, maybe it is more the case that instead of turning public spaces into private spaces, headphones afford a transformation of any space into a personalized space. At any rate, the dynamics raised by introducing headphones seemed pertinent in relation to Charlie’s piece.

However, once I began working on few I had the feeling that having people 1-by-1 enter into my room was too disruptive to the overall flow of the evening. Instead of people coming in and out of my room, I switched gears and decided to find a way of staging the same degree of intimacy, but with a group of people surpassing in number few’s seeming audience limitation—that it should be performed to “a few people very close to you”—with somewhere between the range of 7-15 people expected during performance.

To preserve the sense of intimacy I associated with my bedroom, the house was still important, leading me to consider performing in my living room. Most of the other music being performed on the evening will be played in the basement of the house, and does not have any sense of intimacy! On a personal level, the living room seemed like a much more appropriate space as well since it happens to be where I do most of my concentrated listening. It is an important space that I associate with the previously mentioned gradual development of my listening practices. My body has a particular way of existing in that space that I feel adds something important to a performance.

With the space determined, I began to think more precisely about the aural design of my living room and what kind of ambient sounds I could expect to encounter there. It became abundantly clear that the space was not “very quiet.” In fact, although it is not loud, it is far from very quiet. I was still convinced by the space because of its ability to encode intimacy, its personal associations and resonances, and the fact that it allows me to perform the piece in the same spatio-temporal space as my friends. However, I wanted to further push the piece’s bounds and find a better environment in which to perform few even if it was only for me. Additionally, since abandoning the video in favor of a live performance, the use of headphones and binaural recording means were no longer necessary. At this point though, my interest in the creative potentials of binaural recording were unshakeable and thankfully so, as pursuing that interest inadvertently led to finding an ideal space in which I could work on few.

Convinced that the there were still benefits to be reaped through an exploration into binaural recording techniques, I continued to dig. I had recently learned that the University of Huddersfield have a dummy head for the purpose of binaural recording and also came into contact with some Soundman in-ear binaural microphones. While inquiring about the dummy head I was made aware of the University’s semi-anechoic chamber, and out of curiosity booked the space as a workstation for few.

I found it fitting to be working in a semi-anechoic chamber—versus a fully treated anechoic chamber—where the possibility of detecting ambient sound leakage is still remotely possible. In other words, the space is not absolutely silent, but is very quiet. The likelihood of detecting non-continuous ambient sounds was also dramatically reduced. (That is, my ability to detect external non-continuous ambient sounds was dramatically reduced. On the other hand, the ability to detect non-continuous ambient sounds internally generated was significantly heighten. For example: I became especially aware of the sound my body makes when I swallow saliva!) I’d even go so far as to argue that it represents a near ideal aural environment for performing few alone. In the semi-anechoic chamber I made some recordings of me rehearsing few using the Soundman in-ear mics. I plan to get in there again and set up both the in-ear microphones, but also use the dummy head to capture a different perspective, plus get a clean stereo recording of the piece. Having the multipule sound-reception perspectives could lead me to an interesting mixing situation where I’m able to gradually move from one aural perspective to another. However, I’ve not spent any time recording in a semi-anechoic chamber and don’t know what will happen really.

An excerpted recording from my time in the semi-anechoic chamber.
Listen with headphones for effect of the binaural recording.

You’ll notice that the recording has a noticeable background hiss, and although that might seem problematic in terms of representing aural fidelity with my perception of the environment, I think it serves a poetic function of highlighting claustrophobic tendencies in both the piece and the space in which the recording was made. It’s possible that there was a fault with the pre-amp I was working with, and I will be working with a different recording setup when I go back into the chamber tomorrow. I suspect there will still be some background hiss, but not to the same degree as above.

For me though, and more significant really is the idea that the sonic conditions of the semi-anechoic chamber afford the possibility of performing few completely uninterrupted. Recording few in an environment that allows the totality of the piece to unfold without pause, and to me at least, suggests suitable conditions to justify a recording of the piece. The resultant recording of few could be seen as a manifestation of me performing few alone, while at the same time my personal playback (and listening) of that recording would constitute a performance of few directed towards me, satisfying the second performative mode outlined in Charlie’s performance directions – performing “to yourself.”

The function that the piece serves once it shifts from the realm of repeatability (live performance) into the realm of replayability (something recorded) is different. It is my feeling that when I playback a recording of few made in the semi-anechoic chamber that the recording serves two new functions. In addition to manifesting a realization of ‘performing the piece to one’s self’ through active listening of the playback, the recording being played also becomes a part of its immediate aural environment. Or rather, the piece is placed-into and attunes the environment.

One of the principal realities of few is that sound be contributed to an environment (regardless of how unassuming that contribution has the potential of being). The recording of few taken in the semi-anechoic chamber becomes a marker of the piece’s sonic contribution to an environment and a stable representation of the continuous and non-continuous ambient sounds within the piece itself. In many respects, this highlights the idea that few is already a manifestation of continuous and non-continuous ambient sounds in itself. There’s a synecdochic principal at play in this perspective that I think allows for the possibility of having the piece talk to its self in interesting and unexpected ways.

I’m currently imagining a performance situation where a recording of few taken from the semi-anechoic chamber is played back in my living room while I simultaneously perform an iteration of few live. There’s also an idea of sending the sound of my live performance, mediated/amplified through in-ear microphones worn during the performance, to the headphones of a human-aural-ambulator. What I mean more concretely is that I’m toying with the idea of performing a version of the piece where the sounds I physically produce are amplified and sent directly to one listener (amongst a larger collective of listeners). This satisfies the criteria that the piece be performed for a few people close to me. Whilst there would still be a larger audience surrounding the space of me and another person, the audience is on the outside of a specific aspect of the performance. There’s a sense of constructed intimacy and a prvitization of the performative situation of this realization of few that I hope (maybe paradoxically) affords a dynamic listening experience for everyone involved (directly or indirectly).

This current solution is still under revision. After the first performance of the work this Friday, I will write again with another set of reflections on the solution I arrived at and the experience of performing the piece for an audience.

more information on this project can be found @ the project’s hub


[1] Sdraulig, C. On ‘Few’–Charlie Sdraulig. Null Point. http://nullpointseries.wordpress.com/words/charlie-sdraulig-on-few/.

[2]Sdraulig, C. (2013) few. http://www.charliesdraulig.com/few.pdf.

2 thoughts on “a loud whisper – Preparing Charlie Sdraulig’s ‘few’

  1. Pingback: prattle & babble – urtext | Michael Baldwin

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