Writing early on a temperate Monday morning, early for me. Cara is up and fed and watered – she has language lessons to attend. My morning is laid out before me, a beautiful slab of clear time in which I can make up for the lost (although valued) hours of last week when I began correspondences that I could not follow through.
Saturday was a beautifully balanced day and worth recalling here, two days after it has passed. A selection of friends and likeminds attended the final day of the Tuned City conference which took place in the spectacular resonance of Nalepastraβe, a geometric complex located among the industrial Greenland of the city’s south east – an area Cara and I accidentally explored on one of our forays, indeed we cycled right into the complex without realising but turned back thinking it to be some factory or business. In fact the buildings are the remnants of a broadcasting centre, from where all of the GDR’s national radio stations produced and broadcast their programmes, and was seen as a seminal architectural work by Franz Ehrlich.
Now holding concerts, conferences and artists studios, the building was opened up to a sonic exploration by the Tuned City festival. Saxophonists mapped the buildings contours, ambient tracks filled the overgrown gardens and floated across the river, overtones explored the acoustic dynamics of old recording studios and our little cassette machines, the result of a week of workshops, whirred and clicked their tiny amplifications throughout the entrance hall.
Of the day, two performances now stand out in dislocation. Jacob Kirkegaard’s Labyrinthitis was one of those rare sound pieces that affects the listener beautifully without explanation, and then provokes the listener intellectually after explanation. The sound piece exists for itself, as itself, but also as a portal into scientific theory (and not the other way round). The piece relies on a rule employed both in medical science and musical practice, as I remember. When two frequencies at a certain ratio (1 to 1.2 I also recall, but perhaps here incorrectly) are played into the ear, additional vibrations in the inner ear will produce a third frequency. This frequency is generated by the ear itself (referred to in musicology as a Tartini tone).
By recording and arranging the tones from his ears in the composition and playing them to us as an audience, sitting as we were inside the grand concert hall, Kirkegaard evoked further tones within our ears. The hall itself is acoustically designed and the saxophonists of earlier had left disappointed having tried to map the space for dead sound and reverberance - they could find none, the space is perfect. In another nice resonance, a friend told me he used to visit the hall as a child to wait for his grandfather to finish playing double bass in a famous old GDR jazz band. He could not shift the sense of boredom recalled from these early years, and was profoundly affected by his return.
So, Kirkegaard played set of dual tones at the given ratio and as every dual tone was played, a new Tartini tone was encountered inside the head of each individual in the audience as a personal symphony. Kirkegaard then artificially reproduced this third tone and introduced it ‘objectively’ into his composition. When combined with another distorting frequency, it created yet another tone which all combined into a pattern of descending tonal structure whose spiral form, I am told, mirrors the inner human ear. The clinicism of this description does not do it justice perhaps, but such was the effect of these internal shifting tones, that most of the audience wandered out into the bright sunshine afterwards in a trance, listening to their inner ears for more. As beautiful a piece of composition as I have ever witnessed. I am considering travelling to St. Petersburg in September just to see Polythera, his new work based on Solaris.
The second performance of note, which bookended several hours of conversation about architectural space and the physics of sound, was Storm by Chris Watson and BJ Nilsen. Played out in the same hall through four speaker stacks set in the four corners of the room with the audience sat in concentric circles around the two artists mixing their work live, Storm managed a journey through series of storms across the North Sea. Heavy rain, crashing waves and wind batterings were punctuated with the expertly recorded sounds of indigenous wildlife, their struggle against the elements woven into a narrative of escape and survival seemingly determined by the rise and fall of weather systems, immersing each member of the audience in both the intricacy of the sounds and grand stories about nature’s strength.
In respect to the city, it exposed the fragility of our existences, a fragility which we attempt to limit and bind within tower blocks and shelters. It also converted me to field recordings, which previously I had approached with either disdain (not more birdsong) or technophobia (the technologies are simple to understand, but not so easy to operate). The clarity and perception of Watson’s work has been expressed a thousand times, and far more eloquently than I do here, but this performance finally sold me. To listen, to amplify the unheard, to place sounds in context with other sounds that coexist but are rendered mute by our inability to listen is a vital process and one that, as the late sun fell behind the horizon and a blue darkness slid in from the east, resonated perfectly within the expansive confines of the GDR’s last broadcast post.