externalized traces – In Conversation with Charlie Sdraulig about ‘few’

After visiting Charlie in May, and documenting a realization of few, I asked Charlie if he would be interested in having a free-form conversation with me about the piece and our collaboration. In our conversation we discussed the context from which few emerged, strategies for devising realizations, performative idiosyncrasies, overhearing, the duration of the score and its relation to focus, re-sounding as a possible way of interpreting the work activated by the piece, and an idea of documentation as inviting mishearings.


Michael Baldwin: Let’s start by talking about the context in which few was written.

Charlie Sdraulig: few is the third piece in a series collectively known as breath. The other two pieces in the series were primarily concerned with developing a vocabulary of sounds for winds predicated on a tenuous physical relationship between a performer and their instrument. The idea for this third breath piece had been percolating for a while and I wasn’t entirely sure what form it would take. Actually, the piece started off quite grandiosely as this kind of epic for slide whistle! I’d even bought an instrument and had been mucking around with it, but somehow this approach to the piece never really stuck. I remember feeling dissatisfied that I had not yet centrally engaged with unmediated breath in the series up until that point.

In the meantime another piece intervened, between for flute and violin, which was primarily concerned with the interactions and relationship between two human beings. The process of writing between was quite a difficult one, as evidenced by the forty-page monolith text score [laughs] which in some respects was perhaps more for my own benefit as a way of working out exactly what it was that I was trying to do!

When I came back to the idea of a third breath piece I was concerned with making something that was, in some ways, as pared back as I could make it. I ended up with the idea of writing a piece for myself—a solo voice, just breathing for the most part and enacting a largely private ritual. I wanted to focus on something singular and concerned with the individual rather than dealing with interactions between human beings. However, that’s not to say that few does not engage with interactions of some sort. In few, the performer responds to ambient sounds which may include other human beings, animals, machines etc.—anything they hear in the immediate environment. Ultimately though, the piece is focused on an individual’s perception of the world, and using breath as a way of externalizing that perception felt appropriate in this instance.

MB: few is seemingly the first work of yours to actively incorporate and respond to its immediate external sonic environment, with subsequent pieces such as binary and category continuing this exploration. The elements of responding and reacting are in your previous work, but always related to internally constituted sounds. In few though, this work where you start looking inwards, it seems almost paradoxical that the sonic awareness moves outwards from sounds that you are responsible for to the sounds that are incidentally within the performer’s environment.

CS: By the middle of 2013, I had been working with relatively quiet sounds for a while, and was attracted to that particular context for a number of reasons. Broadly, the inherent ambiguity of making and perceiving sounds at the threshold of audibility allows very particular expressions of human individuality and subjective experience to emerge. Occasionally, when sounds are so close to the general noise floor, a certain type of tunnel vision-like listening and focus can occur where a listener may exclude phenomena external to the piece. Clearly though, ambient sound can overwhelm very quiet sounds or potentially co-exist with them. Before I wrote few I felt that I had been excluding ambient sound from the perceptual auditory scene, if you like, for no particularly good reason—ambient sound was somehow unacknowledged, a bit of an elephant in the room. I suppose few was the first step in grappling with this concern and aiming for a certain type of co-existence.


MB: I wanted to perform few since you first shared it with me in 2013. It wouldn’t be until later though that I would feel ready to dedicate a significant potion of my time getting to know the piece in an intimate way.

Towards the end of September in 2014 I went on a ten-day mediation retreat. A notable aspect of the retreat was that the participants exercised noble silence, meaning no one spoke (either verbally or through body language) to each other. The experience was a journey inwards. During that journey one thing that re-awoke for me were my ears. Afterwards I became more sensitive to my sonic environments and the ambient sounds that were surrounding me. Around the same time, I started to get interested in the sound studies literature, with the writings of Jonathan Stern being my entrance.

Towards the beginning of this year, after digesting these new inputs and experiences, I felt prepared to invest the time necessary to learn few. There was an opportunity to perform your piece on a concert I was organizing in Huddersfield and I thought to myself ‘Ok, this is a great chance to deal with a work that invites a very careful experience of listening’.

Without reiterating too much of what I’ve written about already, I’ll direct the reader to my first two blog posts about the preparation process I went through for my first performance of few. Though, before moving on to the point where you became directly involved when I visited you in London to work on a second realization for one of Bastard Assignment’s house concerts last May, let’s talk briefly about my first interpretation.

CS: What I think comes across strongly in your first blog post is the sense that you’re teasing out of the various possible realisations of the piece, giving the piece a poke and prod—exploring! I didn’t directly experience your first realisation of the piece. However, from what I could glean from those first two blog posts, it seemed as though you were trying to simultaneously represent all of the various possible identities of the piece at once. Perhaps that confused the situation a bit.

MB: Yes, I think you are right. You know me… that way of working is representative of my own artistic predilections; I tend to try and compress everything into a single experience. For me, that first realization felt like findingmy interpretation of the work.

CS: Yeah, absolutely! I think that that is perhaps revealing of the differences in our temperaments. As I said, my own creative process for few eschewed any attempt to express a highly variegated totality, rather I was consistently striping away and paring down—distilling the concerns of the pieces in the series that preceded few, abandoning the epic slide whistle solo and then ending up with a semi-private ritual.

MB: While devising my first performance I was bearing in mind that few was not designed to be performed in the presence of many people. It’s so obvious. But, something about that ‘impossibility’ fascinated me. Maybe I was trying to open it up as much as I could in order to make if fit within a more spectacle-like situation of concert performance. It’s interesting though that when we meet we decided that, well no, in fact it makes more sense to present it as a private act that is happening in front of other people and leave it at that.

CS: I guess I was envisioning certain performance situations where there could potentially be one or two people present in addition to the performer. That is, if the human being doing the piece wanted to share it with a few people literally and figuratively close to them, the option would be open to them. However, The piece was very much conceived as an experience primarily for the person doing the realization—somehow the score and associated processes would be a type of highly subjective perceptual focusing.

I even envisioned performances where the piece could be somewhat stealthily performed amongst other people, where it didn’t necessarily need to draw attention to itself as a performed act. The performance space could be any relatively quiet environment: a cafe, a library, a park, a stationary delayed train etc. Rather fancifully perhaps, one person’s habitual automatic breathing within these spaces could somehow take on a more conscious, focused purpose and become few. Perhaps the piece could be abandoned at a moment’s notice only to be re-engaged with at a later point.

Using breath as few’s predominant sounding material was motivated by a desire to make the piece potentially accessible to anyone willing to read it through, engage with it, and try it. few was designed as something that friends, or whoever happened upon it, could try and directly experience for themselves. Performing few primarily to and for other people was a fairly peripheral concern in my initial intentions for the work. This all relates to how few got its final form and why it mostly uses breath sounds: I wanted the piece to be performable by almost everyone, and not everyone has a slide-whistle [laughs]


MB: I remember that when we meet and talked about the piece, I mentioned that, in fact, breathing through my mouth isn’t the way that I’m accustomed to breathing. I often breathe through my nose, whereas you typically breathe through your mouth. I find it interesting that even with something as primal as breathing, there’s a certain way in which the breathing is happening and prioritized in few.

CS: Absolutely. Each person’s idiosyncrasies are evident even in the most generalizable, fundamental human acts. Clearly something similar applies for perceiving sound, how relationships are made between sounds, and what conclusions are drawn by the perceiving individual. The highly subjective character of these physical and perceptual actions, taking place in a context of extreme quietude, makes communicating the experience of doing few to another person very difficult.

When I wrote a few lines about the piece on the nullpoint blog I described the piece in terms of “barely externalized sounds”, “almost imperceptible traces of perception”, and so on. I suppose I was primarily trying to describe the perceptual experiences that an audience member might have, which are quite distinct from the experiences that the person performing the piece might have. The piece attempts to catalyse a particular way of perceiving the audible world, a particular way of breathing in the world, and emphasizes the individual nature of all of these acts. Ultimately, an outside listener is left with only the sediment and the trace of these things—there is always an element of the performer’s experience that is not possible to communicate across to another human being (though one can be more or less evasive perhaps).


MB: When you first heard me perform few for you during my visit, was that the first time that you someone had performed it for you individually?

CS: Now that I think about it, yes. Friends had tried the piece and talked to me about their experience. But yeah, I hadn’t sat next to someone actually doing it. It would be really interesting to hear your take on the direction of your interpretation from this point. From your initial run-throughs in my living room in Hammersmith, I had the impression that you were trying to actively project the sounding material: the breathing, the tongue clicks, the hums, etc.

MB: Yes, It was quite a demonstrative Performance with a capital P.

CS: Yeah, absolutely. If I try to rationalize your initial approach in retrospect—though I’m not sure that I was thinking exactly in these terms at the time—it was a very self-conscious performance of few, or rather you were overly conscious that you were being listened to… which, might be quite an odd thing to say. Somehow the core of the piece isn’t really being engaged with if one is trying to be demonstrative and conscious of the fact that other people are listening to what you are doing. Whether there happens to be other people in the room is neither here nor there, to a certain extent; the piece is at its core the perceptual experience of the performer. I don’t want to generalize about my music in these terms, but I think of this piece as primarily a private act. If there are audience members present they would not so much be listening, but instead overhearing the piece unfolding. Though potentially they may also contribute to the ambient sound in a performer’s environment!

MB: It’s possible that while I was performing few for you the first time, there was part of me that was, like you say, self-conscious, but mostly because I was performing it for the person who had written it. I was expecting feedback, especially concerning the articulation of structure and my pacing. I was aiming make all of that as clear as possible. Afterwards, it became clear that actually those things are more for myself; they are ways of navigating the piece, but not necessarily things that people on the outside need to be aware of.

CS: We are all familiar with the experience of being in a room with someone, breathing and making what could be potentially categorized as habitual sounds: grunts, clearings of the throat, swallowing saliva, tongue clicks that might precede speech, etc. We are familiar with the situation of overhearing someone else making sound in this manner, but perhaps without any intention of directly communicating. These examples are possibly more effective models for a performance of few, compared to more demonstrative approaches.

MB: I remember you saying that the sounds I make could actually really be something only I perceive. It’s in the score’s instructions, yes, but to hear it directly made a difference. It transformed my demonstrative performance of prescribed breathing technique into a private activity situated within an ecology of other things and beings.

CS: Perhaps there is room for improvement in my technique and notation, but I often find that I spend a good chunk of my time working with performers insisting upon what is contained in the instructions and in the scores, and working through the implications of this. That said I don’t want to close off other interpretive routes. I would be intrigued to hear and see you do another realization in response to these first two that you’ve already made. I’m keen to find out what you would take independently from those past experiences. But yes, this is quite a common experience for me, working with a performer, just insisting upon what is in the score, and in some senses, essentially saying, yeah, it’s okay to just do that [laughter]. Sometimes a chunk of the collaborative process is saying: “yes, that’s all I meant—just that.”

MB: It’s like the collaboration is a way of meeting where the score is and taking it for what it is. We have been talking about technique a bit here, and there are many technical aspects of the piece are easy to miss upon first glancing. For instance: determining when (or if) it is appropriate to breathe through the nose, figuring out how to smoothly navigate the ins and outs of breaths, maintaining a consistency of breath sounds relative to the different mouth shapes, keeping the breaths voiceless. One can spend a lot of time refining these aspects of the technique.

There were moments during the house concert in London where I lost track of whether or not I was breathing in or out(!), and for me that was part of developing the technique and then letting go in performance—becoming unconscious as it were. Your insistence on the technique and craft was tremendously useful. Paradoxically enough, the further inward into the piece I found myself going, the more it didn’t seem as though I needed to do as much to make the piece ‘work’!

CS: Perhaps this is blatantly obvious, but a large part of working with another human being is convincing them that the end goal you had in mind is what we should be collectively going for. However, this is not to say that authorial intent ruled the day! There were a number of discussions we had where you challenged me on certain points and I was like, “yeah, that’s a really good point, let’s do it.” There was one instance related to a tongue click where we did a bit of archaeology and digging through sketches to work out why a particular order of events didn’t make sense structurally, which has since been revised and adopted.

MB: Yeah, and we also had a discussion about how to negotiate the thumb movement which occurs half way through the piece—particularly the matter of when and how to bring it back down to rest.

CS: There was a series of events that I hadn’t completely thought through. Having you performing the piece and grappling with a fringe case, made it apparent that there was a situation where you could be raising and lowering your arm quixotically, for no apparent sonic goal.

MB: There was a comment after my first performance about that moment where the thumb comes up to the mouth. It is one of the only, seemingly, visually deterministic moments in the composition, and because so much of the composition is about the performer’s and listeners’ relationship to their external sonic environment, to have something that doesn’t seem as though it’s a catalyst of that environment, feels out of place. Obviously, it was important to get that movement right in order for it to appear natural and not be something that was just happening.


MB: I notice that you call few a miniature. Did you have an idea of how long the piece would be when you originally wrote it? What was your approach to duration?

CS: Let’s talk about duration specifically first. (Broadly speaking though, I would encourage people to have a read through the score—it’s not particularly long or visually busy.) The basic durations are determined by breath lengths, which for the most part are as long as possible. I’m imagining that “as long as possible” is modified and conditioned by the mouth shapes. Some mouth shapes will naturally be less efficient and will decrease the duration of breath lengths over time, depending on the stamina of the performer.

MB: It’s fairly safe to say that the more open the mouth is, the shorter the duration, and the smaller the aperture of the mouth, because there is less air being exhaled or inhaled, the longer the duration.

CS: Yes. Also, stopping and re-treading through certain parts of the score occurs as a result of responding to non-continuous ambient sounds. Subsequently, breath pressure may also be adjusted to the newly perceived level of the continuous ambient sounds at the time. Of course, slightly higher or lower breath pressures will also have an impact upon breath lengths. Generally though, from an outside perspective, the piece involves long breath lengths that are broken up occasionally. The majority of the realizations that you were doing where in the 15-25 minute range, is that right?

MB: The maximum duration we reached was 22 minutes, so yes, in that range.

CS: So then the video that you made is representative of one of the longest possible realizations?

MB: That’s right.

CS: On the one hand, I didn’t anticipate that the piece would be quite as long as it ended up being; on the other hand, I wasn’t so concerned with the duration in the sense that the piece was primarily conceived of as a private act. If the situation occurred that someone was performing few in their flat, their room, wherever, and they were interrupted in the process of performing the piece then it would simply be put aside. This makes quite short realizations possible where a person may not quite make it through the entirety of the score, and the performance may be left unfinished or abandoned. This is in opposition to holding on to the bitter end, or performing it for others or oneself in an environment where you are not going to be interrupted etc. (The ‘miniature’ character of the piece relates more to the diminutive character of parameters other than duration: a few mouth shapes, a few tongue clicks, a few sounds…) So, I suppose I wasn’t really thinking about few being too long or too short. It would just take the amount of time it took given the conditions of that realization.

MB: Yet you’ve written a four page score. In your original conception where the performance of few is a private activity, I am still unclear about exactly what function the score serves. If it’s a perceptual filter are there changes happening across the duration of the score that justifies its length, or could the piece simply be a single in and out breath cell repeated and set in relation to the ambient environment? In that sense, there is a written duration. Even though it is possible to abandon it, there are still bounds to it.

CS: I was conceiving of the score as providing a certain amount of material, providing a focus and, in some sense, a discipline to the act (or framing of the ritual). Potentially I could have provided more or less material. In any case, there are determined elements in the piece—all of the mouth shapes, the tongue clicks, the hums, etc. There’s a roundabout logic to how those sounds are ordered. The ambient sounds interrupt and mediate this predetermined route in the sense that the act of performance constitutes adopting a sort of intelligence or schema with certain desires of its own—to make a particular sound, to raise one’s hand up at a certain point and make a particular whistle, to hum or to tongue click. Nevertheless, this intelligence is also attentive and sensitive to the environment around itself.


MB: I like that idea of the score having a focusing function. I’m beginning to realize that the score, because it has a form, is able to carry more ancillary sounds such as the tongue clicks, hums, whistles, etc. In response to the sounding materials of the piece, I identify a kind of re-sounding. Not only is the performer perceptually filtering their aural environment through performance, but that the environment is in some ways also re-sounding through the performer. There’s an ambiguity between the sounds that the performer makes and the sounds of the ambient environment. In the performance I gave in London there were many airplane sounds that constituted the sonic environment. My sounds blended into the environment and I felt in some ways as though the piece was allowing my body to resonate in sympathy with my sounding environment.

CS: In that particular performance, there were all sorts of happy coincidences—the whistling intersecting with bird song, the sound of breath being filtered through mouth shapes imitating the slow glissandi of airplanes passing by, etc. This is not to say that I was thinking of those particular examples or anticipating certain types of ambient sound. However, I was conscious of there being both continuous and non-continuous elements in the score—mirroring my categorisation of ambient sound. One of the happy benefits of working at a perceptual threshold is that you can very easily achieve a perceptual confusion between, or fusion of, sound sources. That type of co-existence was something I became more aware of as I explored certain types of quiet instrumental sounds, and partly motivated some of my decisions regarding the sonic vocabulary of few.

MB: When I first properly sat down to perform few I noticed a strong sense of aural dilation—as though my immediate aural environment was becoming part of me, and likewise I was becoming part of it. I get the sense that there is something about working at this threshold of perception that opens up a permeability with one’s space.

CS: I’m very glad and happy to hear you talk in these terms, but I would also encourage anyone who is sufficiently curious to try the piece and have whatever experience that they end up having. I would hope that each performer would take personal ownership of the piece and experience it in their own unique way. The type and character of the experience that you describe is fantastic. However, there are very different types of experiences that others might have, depending on their particular background or way into the work.


MB: This seems like the most appropriate time to talk about the video and the idea of it as an invitation into the work.

CS: You have previously framed listening to the video on headphones as a good analogue to the experience of one person entering into your domestic environment, and inhabiting or reliving that experience with you. I think the video works quite well on those terms. However, some of the misgivings that you expressed on your blog regarding issues of immersion and attention remain, given the particular medium and platform. Though maybe it is somehow appropriate that an audience member can abandon the video mid-performance, or not listen on headphones, and come away with an incomplete experience—perhaps this is an analogue to the stealthy performance I mentioned earlier.

When we initially spoke about the video, I was thinking of it as a diary-like documentation at the end of the process of collaborating on the piece. I appreciate the video more in that sense, though I would hope there are some people who will sit down for twenty minutes, quiet themselves, and enter into the piece in a way that’s similar to the live experience.

MB: You know, the indications that you should listen with headphones, and that you really do need to pause before engaging—these seem like difficult aspects of sharing the work through this platform. This isn’t something that we’re going to solve today…

CS: But it’s good to acknowledge. I think it also relates to something that is perhaps more or less clear about my work. First and foremost I work at a perceptual threshold within a concert-performance context predicated upon certain types of expectations and rituals. Within that context, one is already predisposed to certain ways of listening. I would hope that I could momentarily push this situation in a certain direction. However, in an online video the expectations and rituals are very different. Clearly, most of the pieces I have written so far do not fully take into account all of the particulars associated with the medium of online video.

MB: And in this sense, I think it is important to reiterate the idea of the video is an invitation into few and a document of our collaboration. I think the video does well to communicate a sense of closeness, which I think has a lot to do with the quality of the sound. You know, the close-miking, the clarity of the environment and ambient sounds therein, etc. When we were putting together the video, I sent you the audio before sending the visual, and so you spent a lot of time listening to the audio only. It was only towards the end of production that you experienced both the visual and sonic elements together. Could you send us off with a few thoughts on the importance that seeing your work has taken in your recent documentation preferences?

CS: More and more I’ve tended to present my work with both the visual and audio together, and this is the primary way in which I would like people to experience the documentation of my work. Separating the sound from its physical reality and human origins seems unnecessary and artificially restrictive. When working at the threshold of audibility, it’s also not always clear how these sounds are being made, or by whom—visual information can resolve these uncertainties. Furthermore, purely visual events often occur in my music where a performer’s intention to make a sound fails. Ultimately though, I am still prioritizing sonic over visual phenomena in few. Perhaps there is another piece after few that takes into account the impact of the visual scene, as well as the auditory scene, in order to fully support what I’m saying about the necessity of the visual element in the documentation.

MB: I look forward to that work. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me about few, Charlie.

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