A story to tell...
by Darren Copeland
lecture from February 13, 2005
I am an electroacoustic sound artist creating works for concerts, radio as well as installations. I also do sound design for theatre and I design spatialization systems for concerts and other artistic productions.
I live in Toronto, which is a very multi-cultural city in the eastern part of North America located five hours west of Montreal and five hours east of Detroit. It is the largest city in Canada, but one that has considerably less electroacoustic music and sound art activity than Montreal, where alone more than half of the sound art production in all of Canada is happening.
My outside income is not from teaching like that of many of my colleagues in sound art. That is because the academic institutions in Toronto have very little focus on electroacoustic sound art at the present time, which again is unlike the situation in Montreal where there are at least five institutions to my recollection, which have been teaching electroacoustic practice for more than the past 10 years. Instead, my outside income is mostly from event production. I am the artistic director of “New Adventures in Sound Art”, a non-profit organization, which has been producing concerts, installations, multi media and site-specific performances since 1998. With “New Adventures in Sound Art” being the only organization in Toronto devoted to sound art, and because there is so little awareness of the art practice in the city, the programming mandate of the organization is very broad and comprehensive covering the entire spectrum of sound art activity, which in my estimation can range from a media artist producing an interactive installation that focuses on sound to a soundscape or acousmatic concert.
Many composers and musicians work in Toronto on a freelance basis and I am no different in this regard. Those of us who compose with technology usually find themselves making soundtracks for theatre, dance and film. Many composers start with theatre and dance and move onto film, such as Bruno Degazio, but others like John Oswald or myself keep a foot in the world of theatre. Theatre has actually been a part of my development as a sound artist right from the beginning, so it is an environment where I am at home you could say. With this in mind, I have produced a number of works that would be considered “Hörspiel” or “ars acoustica” here in Germany, or “radio art” back home in Canada. It is useful to point out -as a small side note- the influence of theatre on my thinking as a sound artist. It is my view that whenever a work is presented in a performance hall to an audience there is always on some level of theatrical layer to the performance experience no matter how much one tries to suppress it. When words are added to a sound artwork, I feel that the theatrical element to the experience becomes much more important. The work then communicates on two levels - that of music and sound and that of theatrical and textual meaning. Ignoring this relationship may fracture the relationship between you as an artist and the listener.
(play under reading, the opening section of "Always Becoming Somebody Else")
My first impulse for making radio artwork, which goes back to around 1993 when I was a student at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, was not from my theatre experiences but rather from my focus at the time on the associative qualities of environmental sounds. What I mean by that are the images and feelings that are triggered in the mind of a listener when they hear specific sounds from the everyday environment. I was finding that when I made soundscape compositions there was a strong imagistic component to the pieces, but when I got feedback from different listeners, they related to me rather contradictory impressions. I suppose some artists would be OK with that, particularly any musician would certainly have no problem who recognizes his or her practice has being fundamentally an abstract form of discourse and one open to many forms of interpretation, but I felt that some of these varying accounts of images and impressions could add up to something, but they just were not. Perhaps the contradictions also have something to do with our society's limited vocabulary, living in a western sighted culture as we do, for describing sound and listening experiences — using words to describe a sound experience is just something that people are not used to doing. As a response to this problem, I thought that if I began creating works with texts then the associations from the sounds would have some root or basis for a connection with the listener. I could communicate with the listener instead of broadcasting out to the listener. I was already finding this combination to work well in my theatre soundtracks, where my wordless sounds underscored a text. Now, it was time to make a piece of my own that drew from my theatre background, but would remain fundamentally a sound-based work.
I sat down at a cafe in Vancouver one Saturday night in the summer of 1995 and starting reading “A Dream Play” by August Strindberg. The elaborate stage instructions before many of the scenes, and the locations of the scenes suggested to me many interesting environmental soundscapes. From there on began a six year project to complete what eventually became the first surround sound radio drama produced by the CBC in Toronto. In 2000, I produced another radio drama for CBC, which was an adaptation of the Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwen's 1967 verse drama for radio called “Terror & Erebus”, which I will mention only in passing as it has little to do with environmental sounds, but it does has a lot of stylistic similarities to my piece realized for ZKM. However, more on that later on.
(interlude - "Awareness of Space" from Life Unseen)
Upon returning to Toronto briefly in 1996 I began work on “Life Unseen”, a soundscape documentary about blindness that I completed at the University of Birmingham in the UK in 1997. I felt that to learn more about environmental sounds and their associative qualities required research into blind people and their experiences with sounds. Me and my collaborator on this work, Alex Bulmer, who was visually impaired, interviewed many blind people in the Vancouver area for this work. The perception of sound, however more acute it might be with blind people, was something that was largely taken for granted and was difficult for them to articulate. Nonetheless, I learned a great deal about the ways our society is constructed for the visual senses and how much is left out for blind people in the way buildings are designed or conversations are conducted - to name just two examples. The thrust of the piece, therefore, became more about their strategies for adaptation and social experiences than about sound itself. This direction away from sound as the primary subject matter was also prompted by the desire developing within me to, in a sense, tell a story with my pieces, however loose the narrative framework might be. This desire in actual fact might have been within me right from the beginning, and might have something to do with my frustration with communicating with the listener through the exclusive use of environmental sounds.
I continued my research into alternative sensory modalities by reading about autistic people, and in many cases, their very extreme ranges of physical and perceptual sensitivity to sound from very little response to a very heightened response. This research became the backbone to the sound-text composition “Lapse in Perception” — although the connection to autism and that piece became more and more distant as I worked on the piece. In actuality, the piece is very autobiographical as the research led me to reflect more on how little of my environment I actually perceive or take note of. There is a lot of scanning I do when I navigate through an environment while I am engaged in a conversation. Perhaps I have a low attention span and that is really the center of the problem. Nonetheless, recognition of one's greatest shortcomings can sometimes make for great art, or at least, I would like to think so.
(interlude - opening section of Lapse in Perception)
While researching for “Lapse in Perception”, I encountered an English translation of the text that formed the basis for my piece commissioned by ZKM, which is an account of autism by the German youth Birger Sellin in his book “ich will kein inmich mehr sein”. In this case, what drew me to the subject matter was not Birger's sensory perception, but how the book traces his discovery of language and communication. As I described in my program notes for the piece that I adapted with permission from his book, Birger is unable to communicate verbally and this is because of the severity of his autistic disorder rather than an actual physical disability. The writing in the book is the result of an exercise he was introduced to by one of his doctors called “Facilitated Communication”, whereby a person types out what they want to say while at the same time being physically supported by a loved one who for instance might hold the person's arm. Together with his mother, he began communicating his thoughts and understanding of the world through his fingers, although what influence she had on his writing remains unclear to me. His first entry is merely a listing of the alphabet, but as he progresses along, as difficult as it must have been at times, this very lucid and pointed prose emerges and the writing becomes more and more engrossing to read as the continuous succession of brief journal entries in the book accumulate.
It has taken me a long time to find the means and confidence to make a piece that would faithfully bring Birger's writing to the audio realm. Doing so was something that I actually struggled with, because he is after all someone who cannot speak and why represent such a person through speech. On the other hand, I did not want to abandon his writing either, because I found the story he tells and his way of telling it to be very original, poetic and compelling. Fortunately, the invitation to make a piece for ZKM got me motivated to overcome this issue. In the end, I justified making this piece from his book by the notion that a radio production with lots of sound and with the opportunity to work with an actor who could make a wide repertoire of non-verbal sounds, which was executed commendably in the end by Sebastian Schäfer, could in fact bring his story to life for people who do not understand autism. The piece in the end is about the discovery of language and the importance to not take communicating for granted, which were themes touched on in a smaller extent in “Lapse in Perception”. “ich will kein inmich mehr sein” also is part of a recent trend in my work to not use environmental sounds at all. All of the sounds of the piece are derived from Sebastian Schäfer's reading of the texts as well as a series of non-verbal physical improvisations I instructed him to record. The absence of environmental sounds keeps the focus of the piece on the topic of language and Birger Sellin's unique story. The sounds I have sculpted out of Sebastian's recordings, which were done here at ZKM, are centered around helping to guide the emotional and intellectual journey of the piece.
The idea of an emotional journey brings me back to “Terror & Erebus”, which before concluding I wanted you to hear an extract from, since it has many similarities to “ich will kein inmich mehr sein”. “Terror & Erebus” also deals with an extreme psychological situation. In this case, it is about the crew of the 19th Century Franklin expedition of British explorers whose ship was stuck in the Canadian Arctic. They all eventually perished, not because they did not have enough supplies but because the tins they stored their food in gave them lead poisoning. They developed diseases, many went crazy, and the situation got so desperate that some had turned to cannibalism. The voices you hear are of Chris Heyerdahl as narrator Rasmussen and R.H. Thomson as the scientist and second-in-command Crozier.
(interlude - excerpt of Terror & Erebus)
In conclusion, although my impulse to make work for radio began from a perceptual problem that I wanted to resolve, my work in radio has continued on largely because it is a very compelling medium for me to tell stories, which I should add I do not think I could do as successfully in the concert or installation context. This observation is not to take away from the concert or installation medium, because I continue to create work for those as well. It is just the impulse to tell a story has a home on the radio, probably because of the profound cultural association westerner's have between radio, the human voice, and communication. However, in the Twenty-first Century it is possible to conceive of radio as a public listening experience that is a part of the concert hall tradition, or more specifically, the five decade old acousmatic art tradition.
Telling stories in a multi-channel medium is another topic that should be reserved for another discussion, but let me just say that there is a tremendous expressive importance that I place as an artist on the ability to position a speaking voice in one place while controlling the movement of other sounds to other places that are not just in front of you, but also next to you or behind you, or so on. But as I say, that is something that is best left for another story.
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