All images from Voice and Void, curated by Thomas Trummer, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum (sep 16 2007 - Feb 24 2008). (ABOVE:) Christian Marclay, Double Doors (The Electric Chair), 2006. Private Collection. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.
At the Slade School of Art on Wednesday lunchtime, Simon Morris - writer, performer and publisher of Information as Material - was launching The Voice and Nothing More, a short festival of workshops, an exhibition and performances exploring the voice in contemporary art.
Befitting his role as scene setter, Morris read a text that seemed to outline different properties of the voice. I heard sections on laughing, crying, and female orgasm. Several times he screamed mightily into the microphone. I say "seemed" because Morris shared the stage with the saxophonist Rob Lavers. Lavers used the saxophone as an extension of voice, or maybe his voice was an extension of the saxophone. He breathed, growled, shouted, blowed raspberries, hissed and much more. Sometimes voice alone, othertimes into the saxophone mouthpiece, which was sometimes joined to the instrument strung around his neck, sometimes not.
Other times the microphone was inside the bell of the sax. It expanded voice and instrument both. Oftentimes it seemed to expand beyond both. It lasted maybe twenty minutes - Morris talked of feeling, in this context, it should be the length of an academic presentation - prompting the fantastic thought of a panel session comprising three such pieces! It was a fantastic way to theoretically explore the subject of the voice whilst fully inhabiting its physicality and potential.
Apart from two brief silences providing - as Lavers observed - punctuation and shape, both Morris and Lavers played constantly. Sometimes Lavers drowned out Morris completely, other times the voice came through: a fragment of exposition, or just a sense of tone as the words themselves shifted toward sequences of notes moving and combining in time.
In the Q&A afterwards, Morris provided some information: source texts included passages from Mladen Dolar's book - from which the festival takes its name - as well as a re-writing of Becketts Not I that put back in the personal pronouns Beckett left out. Morris and Lavers had rehearsed the piece, and Morris was reading from sheets of A4, some of which were white and some yellow to indicate for Lavers key points in the performance.
That said, the sheer energy of the performance spoke to variations that unfolded live, due both to deliberate improvisation and to slight shifts in alignment of planned sounds and words. Morris and Lavers performance was fascinating in that it depended on a strong, taut connection between them, which immediately collapsed if the sounds were too literally related to the texts views on, say, sneezing or laughing. But what is a literal connection when sound, too, has both a free, non-signifying quality and a contagious connection to words and context?
A short Q&A afterwards raised various issues:
The Kenny Goldsmith Factor. Both had worked on a film about Kenneth Goldsmith (Sucking on Words, 2007) - that, Morris said, had opened Lavers ears to a wide range of musical possibility. What does Goldsmith's idea of "uncreative writing" mean applied to the voice to singing to song?
The Bon Iver Factor. There are lots of conventional songs, and hip-hop, where you can't hear the words. Bon Iver in The New Yorker (Jan 12, 2009) talks of his lyrics as "sounds that eventually turned into words."
The Meaning Meaning Meaning Factor. What is it and where. A performance like this could be seen as a disruption or avoidance of meaning as would be conveyed by Morris reading his text alone. Or we could shift the meaning onto the level of the mark or the note itself. The critic suffocates the art work, said Morris.
The Is-This-A-Performance Factor. All these issues, like the voice, are hugely fragile and are changed through the formality of performance. Morris observed that when they performed just for Lavers' girlfriend everyone had ended up in laughter. Here it didn't seem funny at all.
(TOP:) On the performance by Jospeh Beuys "How to Explain pictures to a Dead Hare." Galerie Schmela, Dusseldorf, 1965. 1965. Hand printed silver gelatin print, torn edges on baryte paper. One of series of four. Photo copyright Ute Klophaus, Wuppertal; (MIDDLE:) Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Opera for a small room, 2005. Private Collection Jill and Peter Kraus Collection, New York. Courtesy of Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin, and Luhring Augustine, New York.(BELOW:) Julianne Swartz , Open, 2007. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Dean Landis, New York. Courtesy Josée Bienvenu Gallery, New York
That's enough Factors but also emerging from the Q&A were thoughts on speech rhythms and how musical rhythms and sounds relate to the phrasing and rhythm of speech, as language comes to be responded to for its musical qualities. Where and how is the boundary formed, crossed and crossed again? Perhaps both states are always inhabited simultaneously.
There was talk, too, of the Assault Factor in Morris and Lavers performance, which attained a highly visceral intensity. When someone mentioned that the sound had removed the space for their usual mental wandering during an academic lecture, it made me think of Artaud, his desire for sounds and actions acting with directed precision on particular organs of the audiences body.
It was curious, too, how easily as an audience we accommodated ourselves to disorientating material, and how that state of familiarity can be disrupted and postponed by certain tactics. I wondered, too, about social indicators on the formation of the voice - the gender factors identified by Carol Gilligan's In A Different Voice, or the voice accented through formative pressures of place. Here the voice seemed a free bio-physical phenomenon, asserting a heritage back through Goldsmith to Kurt Schwitters, and the Ursonate as a kind of avant-garde esperanto.
Morris joked at the beginning that maybe Vallie Export would have been a better opening act for The Voice and Nothing More. Certainly, Exports Tonfilm (Soundfilm), an imagined performance of 1969, opens up a still provocative and disturbing area of investigation:
a photoelectric resistor is built/surgically into the glottis and connected with a light sensitive resistor, which is attached to the outer skin below the ear. the photoelectric amplifier controls the volume. when there is a lot of light, lots of electricity is directed towards the amplifier, the volume is high. with low light it is the reverse.
the live soundfilm works like this, people scream horrifically at midday - as a side effect of the glottis irritation enormous salivation and intestinal cramps etc. occur - with increasing twilight the register of the nation is subdued.
soundfilm offers a lively panorama of early morning chirping, middday slobbering and screaming and absolute night's rest. communication is made possible over thousand meters, the secret disappears (evenings without speaking, midday only screaming)... also this a new way of communication! (VOICE AND VOID, 105)