Moonsong (I have dwelt upon the moon)
The initial aim of this project was to take a time-based, repetitive sonic practice, timed with the movements of the moon, and investigate this practice in relation to memory, process and meaning. The attendant goal was to see if I could, through contemplating on and adapting this practice, relay – through the sound of a sonic work – part of the notion of the ‘thick present’ as conveyed through the writings of Donna Haraway in Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in in the Chthulucene (2016). Could I create a sonic work within the conventions of an online journal platform that conveys both the passage of time enfolded into its creation, punctuated by the process of following the moon, as well as one that – through its own sounding – says something about my journey toward a more sympoietic making process?
What follows constitutes a thinking between practice and theoretical writings that develops through an iterative practice: initial process (born of a time-related artistic process curiosity) returns to theoretical investigation, returns to process, which in turn returns to theoretical reflection and assessment. This text has been co-composed with the sonic work moonsong and is meant to be read alongside – co-listened to with – the sonic work. Excerpts taken from emails, sent to friends and artists almost daily during the initial 30-day process of recording and journaling, called moonsong writings, are included throughout this article, with links. The ‘Appendix: Artistic process of moonsong’ contains a more technical and detailed overview of the process, equipment, and recording acts involved.
Keywords: sonic practice, sympoiesis, Donna Haraway, listening, thick present
my fingers halt and scamper over the keys
your eyes stutter and jerk over the page
. . . . .
we dance among these words together
we move together
we sing together
Theoretical context for moonsong
Sounding theory, touching on the semiotics of sound
A sonic work – in the contemporary sense of the term, but this is certainly evolving – does its doing, the unfolding of itself, most often in intimate relationship with the (human) listener’s experience of it over time. Its form, internal tonal and structural relationships are distinguished and related to each other as they are presented and modulated over time and according to the particular training or experience of both the creator and listener. In general, this temporal aspect is intrinsic within every interaction with a sonic work. In a counterpoint development, through the evolution of recording devices within consumer-driven capitalist musical practices, it has become easier to create the musical ‘object’ in the material form of a phonograph cylinder, vinyl, or CD as well as in the digital form of sound file, web player playlist, or shareable SoundCloud or Bandcamp link.1 The time it takes to engage with such a musical performance or object intersects with the life of the listener in a multitude of ways. A work might be designed for focused public listening, as with a concert performance or museum sound installation; intense private listening, as with an alternative ballad pumped through one’s headphones while curled up in bed; or devised as a catalyst for other work, sport, relaxation or commercial activities, supported by the gentle pulse of Muzak (now Mood:Media) or an ambient café vibe offered by Coffitivity, for example. And, of course, listeners can now mix up all of the above through online access and portable acoustic transmission devices.
‘It is 6:30 and I sense the inexorable climb of the moon toward the horizon.
I suddenly “know” (in an embodied sense) motion=time.’
What I would like to call attention to with this is that in the development of moonsong, I have considered the interplay between the time taken to make a work and its re-iterations according to the demands of working toward a particular theoretical aim, the internal sonic connections of the work as specifically related to the passage of time, and the way that this work might be reacted to in the life of the listener as part of their movement through time. These reactions might include attentive, disinterested, meditative, repulsed, or distracted engagement with this uncommonly long work that operates outside of traditional harmonies and in-between the human, non-human, and machine. I also understand that this practice arose and is offered within a specific Western, avantgarde musical and academic practice.
‘As I re-enter the light sleep of morning, a hypnopompic image of a map appears, a green field, with the words “South Africa.”’
I will be asking many questions in the following text that I, as maker, cannot resolve. What I can do is invite you, my potential listener, to stop reading now and start playing one of the iterations or layers of sonic processes that I have provided – either as a background listening experience while continuing to read this text, or as a focused listening experience while resting. I am obviously offering you an experience, but it is not my intention to control that experience or determine the outcome. I only know that your reading of the theoretical considerations I have implemented in order to derive the developing iterations of this work, over time, will inevitably influence how you hear these iterations. And listening to the work as you read these theoretical considerations will affect how you interpret the text, through a sonic thinking. And that is ok, because this is, concurrently, a sonic work and a textual work.
‘8:05 Today was rather difficult and easy at the same time, the singing of this simple, repetitive pattern. The sound wanted to be small, so small, and still there was the phlegm, holding me hostage.’
I am continually questioning whether and how sound – as composed material – works in terms of conveying something like semiotic meaning: ideas, contexts, places, things, data, cultural developments, or history. In the first part of Listening Through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music, Joanna Demers addresses the shift away from a Western classical music syntax toward and through the development of Post-Schaefferian electroacoustic music, which often cuts itself loose from the parameters of tonality or defined rhythms, and thus away from the signifying codes that listeners depended on to classify a musical work or follow its internal logic, even if primarily in a formal way.2 Demers points out that the rise of electronic music and electroacoustic music from the 1930s on has also generated an unparalleled ‘amount of theoretical literature concerning the act of listening’ which ‘argues over the extent to which composers, materials, and listeners themselves can control the listening process’ and which ‘is concerned with the signifying properties of sound: whether sound can be heard separately from any social, cultural, natural, or historical associations’.3
‘She releases her (beloved) snake toward me.
The face of the snake is approaching mine, right at eye-level,
as if it is floating over a table through the air.’
Can a listener move beyond the shock of listening to totally unrecognizable sounds woven into an atypical form – through the intentional compositional act of poiesis – and be open to receiving a contingent sonic message – through the interpretational act of esthesis?4 And would this contingent sonic message always be arbitrary, the sonic material operating as a signifier with an arbitrary relationship to the signified (extra-)musical idea?5 I cannot fully go into the rich material that Demers offers. However, I agree, along with most of the composers and theorists she mentions,6 that the idea of a Schaefferian ‘reduced listening’ – in which the listener is asked and trained to listen exclusively to the intrinsic characteristics of the sound, attempting to ignore its source in a rarefied as well as quite material and embodied listening strategy – has taken hold of many composers of electronic or electroacoustic music but is not really practiced by a majority of listeners.
‘I suddenly cannot stop feeling that my open mouth with the deep sounds is a prehistoric cave, through which vibrations find their form, while these same vibrations also give it form.’
Thus, I am also aware that it is – perhaps especially – the inclusion of field recordings7 that can trigger the question: What is this supposed to mean? or What am I listening to?If the listener is only partially practicing a Schaefferian ‘reduced listening’, while primarily turning toward what Michel Chion terms ‘causal listening’ (a listening in order to actually gather more information as to its source), or a ‘semantic listening’ (with the purpose of interpreting a linguistic message or code),8 or even a more technical analytical listening popular among composers or sound designers (listening with the objective of hearing which software, effects, techniques have been used in the making process), then how might other overarching theoretical or abstract ideas be introduced into a sonic work? In the work presented here, I noticed, looking back, that I have played with all three modes of listening and electronic manipulation in what I understand now as an attempt to have the listener question the stability of each mode as well as, ideally, to stimulate a questioning of time and process (see section ‘Layering’ in ‘Appendix: Artistic process of moonsong’.)
‘Humans are, in general, not designed to remember things exactly.
We re-member things.
We put events back together in a way that suits us.’
[I do not remember writing the above and need to look online to see if it wasn’t actually a quote from an article I had referenced.]
Of significant importance to me9 is the phenomenological approach toward understanding the sonic experience, one aspect of which is detailed exquisitely in Salomé Voegelin’s unfolding of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s ‘being-honeyed’ (from his 1948 audio-lectures on the French National radio), thought through in the first chapter of Listening to Noise and Silence and returned to in her subsequent books. ‘Being honeyed expresses the reciprocity of his phenomenological intersubjectivity. The honey can only be felt through my stickiness. It cannot be grasped as a remote object but comes to being in my honeyed-hands as a complex phenomenon of no certain shape but a demanding nature.’10 We become honeyed with sound through the physiological effects of sound on the body as well as a complex working of memory, material force, involuntary response, and training, all of which are embedded in layers of personal, educational, social and cultural interaction and conditioning.
A sonic work can make you feel aroused, uncomfortable, entranced, mesmerized, dizzy, floating, nauseated, hyper, disembodied, tingling, pulsing, sleepy, weepy, irritated, but these are words. There is also the qualia of the listening response, apprehended by direct experience, uncommunicable, innately subjective, a raw feel. Are these physiological responses, the qualia of the personal listening response, also part of the way a sonic work generates knowledge or meaning? Can I guess at an average physiological response, and what responsibility do I have toward the listener in mitigating negative responses, even if I deem them necessary in pursuit of my theoretical intent? How might the consciousness and intentionality of returning to a sonic work through a practice of creating, recording, and working with materials create layers of mind-body-generated, non-semantic meaning that might be accessed by the listener? Can we become honeyed together in this listening process?
(10:43) The sky is hanging, thick with white clouds.
There is a softness and a coolness that is permeating my body with a need for deep rest.’
In the following theoretical section, I explore Haraway’s ‘thick present’ – supported and augmented by thoughts of Erin Manning and Brian Massumi, Jane Bennett and Matthew Fuller – and how these thoughts were applied to an iterative process of co-composition.
The notion of a ‘thick present’
While preparing the first seminar for the Theory in the Arts Professorship’s series Time Matters, “I – Casting Futures in the Thick Present”, I was inspired to think with Donna Haraway’s ‘thick present’, which led to the questions: How might I work with Donna Haraway’s notion of a ‘thick present’ within a time-based compositional project, and what parts of this notion might be hearable within a sonic work?
‘To look at a Lukasa memory board is to look at a sacred object and event.
Memory, relationships, morals, community, history, ancestry, lawmaking, virtue and ethical fibre and more and more are all inscribed in ways that go beyond my understanding.’
First of all, as I read Staying with the Trouble, I became acutely aware that Haraway has a PhD in Biology, which is not a trivial observation. As she writes, inspired by Marilyn Strathern, ‘It matters what thoughts think thoughts. It matters what knowledges know knowledges’. When approaching the various aspects of the ‘thick present’ that reveal themselves in her writing, I became aware that I grasp concepts such as autopoiesis and sympoiesis on a superficial level. I can read and re-read the definitions, but I must deepen the well of interactions with these words from which I can draw upon an understanding, and thus an application, to my own work.
What does Haraway actually write about the ‘thick present’?
The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die well with each other in a thick present. […] In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present […] as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.11
Kainos means now, a time of beginnings, a time for ongoing, for freshness. Nothing in kainos must mean conventional pasts, presents, or futures. There is nothing in times of beginnings that insists on wiping out what has come before, or, indeed, wiping out what comes after. Kainos can be full of inheritances, of remembering, and full of comings, of nurturing what might still be. I hear kainos in the sense of thick, ongoing presence, with hyphae infusing all sorts of temporalities and materialities.12
We become-with each other or not at all. That kind of material semiotics is always situated, someplace and not noplace, entangled and worldly. […] Neither despair nor hope is tuned to the senses, to mindful matter, to material semiotics, to mortal earthlings in thick copresence.13
But coral and lichen symbionts also bring us richly into the storied tissues of the thickly present Chthulucene, where it remains possible—just barely—to play a much better sf game, in nonarrogant collaboration with all those in the muddle. We are all lichens; so we can be scraped off the rocks by the Furies, who still erupt to avenge crimes against the earth. Alternatively, we can join in the metabolic transformations between and among rocks and critters for living and dying well.14
‘The Big Splash or Theia impact are ways to refer to the hypothesis that Luna formed around 4.5 billion Earth years ago from the ejecta of a collision between the proto-Earth and a Mars-sized planetesimal.[…]
I would see the Earth in the same spot in the sky, rotating approximately 29.5 times during my Lunar day, which would last, on average, 29 Earth days, 12 Earth hours, 44 Earth minutes and 3 Earth seconds.’
Reading further – and being introduced to examples of staying with the trouble within threatened worlds – a ‘thick present’ invokes non-innocent, committed involvement in one others’ lives, the making-with of sympoiesis, multi-species becoming-with and living-with, in particular places, often damaged lands, that are ‘worth fighting for’.15 While my project might not be able to embody the ‘multispecies sympoietic, symbiogenetic, and symanimagenic’16 nature of the ‘science art activist worldings’17 described in Haraway’s chapter “Sympoiesis,” I discover in this chapter a concept that, in combination with the words of other thinkers, particularly leads me as I continue to re-approach moonsong.
Auto– and sympoiesis, entrainment and entertainment, thing-power and media ecologies
Haraway begins the chapter “Tentacular Thinking” with another refrain of: what happens when a certain mode of thinking becomes unthinkable? ‘Seriously unthinkable: not available to think with.’18 Here she is referring to the biological conceptualization of ‘bounded individuals plus contexts’, ‘organisms plus environments’, or ‘genes plus whatever they need’.19 The concept of autopoiesis was introduced in the 1970s by the biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela and was transferred to the field of the social sciences in the late 1980s by Niklas Luhmann. Characteristics of an autopoietic system are that it is somehow self-contained, organized into bounded structures, and able to (re)produce and maintain itself through internal operations.20 Haraway makes abundantly clear that, while ‘[a]utopoietic systems are hugely interesting […]; […] they are not good models for living and dying worlds and their critters’.21 Offering M. Beth Dempster’s term sympoiesis, Haraway clarifies that ‘[p]oiesis is symchthonic, sympoietic, always partnered all the way down, with no starting and subsequently interacting ‘units’.22 There is always a paradoxical opening to the closed system, an innate we-ness to any individual.
‘my dreams were of a woman leaning against the soft, silky arm of someone dressed up as an elephant in a big, green, diamond-printed puffy soft suit.’
The question that came up in relation to these concepts and my first iteration of the artistic process, which I will address in more detail in the following section, was how I might better break open the initial (closed) system of this composition so that the process becomes – audibly – less autopoietic and more sympoietic. Additionally, how might I relinquish more control of this sonic environment I am creating so that my voice becomes just one of many relational objectiles within a dynamic field of emergence?
With this last sentence I have already turned to the thinking of Erin Manning and Brian Massumi in Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience. This book was written to ‘challenge philosophy to compose with concepts already on their way in another mode […] to ask ourselves what writing can do to make thought-felt what art can do, with philosophy’, from the understanding that ‘the practice that is philosophy has no exclusive claim to thought or the composition of concepts. […] Every practice is a mode of thought, already in the act’.23
‘The cosmos has taught us math,
and time is high-level math.
From my ears I know immediately the animal is smaller than me and cannot kill me.’
Of particular interest to me here is the first chapter, “Coming Alive in a World of Texture: For Neurodiversity.” This chapter linguistically unfolds a way of approaching the experiential world within the neurodiversity of autism. Through the poetic expression of Tito Mukhopadhyay, interwoven with the wording-around of the authors, the reader is introduced to another possibility, of an intensely lived co-presence within a textured world of patterned environmental immediacies. The brain might relent from imposing its highly-trained ability to read patterns and organize them into a foreground and a background; it might defer for a moment in prioritizing human sounds, smells, needs, bodies and faces. This dance of attention might attend to a field of interacting objectiles, with their innate tendency toward expression, without needing them to bud into objects.24 ‘A dance of attention is the holding pattern of an immersive, almost unidentifiable set of forces that modulate the event in the immediateness of its coming to expression. Attention not to, but with and toward, in and around. Undecomposably’.25
‘Yet, listening to animals closely, even when their lifespan is much shorter than a human,
can feel like listening to the stream of life in its entirety.’
Drawing upon the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, Manning and Massumi offer an environmental mode of awareness as mode in which entertainment ‘captivation in a dance of attention’26 can exist without necessarily, inevitably, or predominantly leading toward entrainment, in which the brain singles things out from the environment as particular affordances.27 As a child, the demands of school and my need to extract myself from a boring or overly-stimulating environment trained me to focus on reading a book, for example, to the point of no longer hearing or feeling the environment I was in. It has been more recently – through my work with sound and movement improvisation – that I have an embodied recognition, a lived knowing of this passage by Mukhopadhyay:
there may be a sudden sound of laughter that can dissolve the stories told by the reflections and the sullen silence of the chair’s shadow with its demanding noise, making you wonder which part of the funny story from Jack’s voice you missed listening to while you were watching the giant blades of the fan pushing out every story and sound away from it with air.28
Improvisation provided my neurotypical mind with the openness to become aware of the virtuality of this mode of awareness: the multiplicity of motion and sensation that each aspect of the environment can provide when the brain is allowed to relax its habits of entrainment.
‘Every breath of the moonsong was about connecting to this reality tonight.
But the moon shone on with her cool light, and I cannot cry.’
How does the sonic environment of moonsong facilitate entertainment in a dance of attention within this work? Can the listener attend to the field of flowers through which I have strolled, each casting a different shadow with me in the moment of our co-presence, or do I offer the listener a bouquet of neatly-clipped and carefully-arranged wild flowers, to be placed in the vase of a tidy sonic work, bounded by its internal time structures?
I will close this section with the notions of vibrant matter as proposed by Jane Bennett and a brief consideration of media ecologies as offered by Matthew Fuller. Jane Bennett opens Chapter one of Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology with a few sentences upon which the faint scent of a manifesto lingers:
And, instead of focusing on collectives conceived primarily as conglomerates of human designs and practices (‘discourse’), I will highlight the active role of nonhuman materials in public life. In short, I will try to give voice to a thing-power.29
‘Tonight we reached the apex as well as the turning point of my 30 days.
It is day 15, and I have sung with the rising of the late full moon and will also sing tomorrow morning with its setting, approximately 9h23m later.’
Bennett’s book has been instrumental in helping me become aware of how powerfully the things around me get me to do the things I do. In terms of sonic exploration, two examples come to mind. The first derives from around 2008, the first time that I got my home studio going with a good studio mic and interface. Like every Narcissus, I was immediately entranced with the closed, tight, intimate, membranic mirror of mouth to microphone membrane to headphone speaker membrane to tympanic membrane. I could suddenly hear in minute detail every watery smack of my lips and tongue, every sigh of my breath and stroke of the glottis. So much was possible, yet so completely overwhelming in the intimacy. Inspired by feminist, philosopher, and psycholinguist Luce Irigaray and the concept of motherese, I engaged in sensual, nonverbal dialogues with other female artists. The mouth-in-the-ear aspect of this material led me to explore my voice in ways I would have probably never done without the companionship of this equipment.
‘My moonsong has now been placed in reverse, an attempt at sonic symmetry.
So, while I was singing “m m i i o o o o o o o o o” for the rising late full moon, now I was singing “o o o o o o o o i i m m” for the setting late full moon.
Both seemed to make sense to me.
They meant well.’
The second experience was more confining than freeing. Upon entering the working space of Ableton Live, I was confounded by its stereo-normative and 4/4 locked-beat-driven working environment. It took me months to find a way to spatialise material or produce sounds that broke free from the iron grip of what seemed to keep leading me to the production of pop tunes, in some hybrid and mutilated form. In other words, Bennett did help me develop ‘a vocabulary and syntax for, and thus a better discernment of, the active powers issuing from nonsubjects[, …] the material agency or effectivity of nonhuman or not-quite-human things’30 in my work. Through her work I have become more fully aware that the materials I use in the studio are shaping me and the work I am doing more than I am shaping them. The doing flows equally and distributively through the vessel of both of us.
‘we have spent time together,
me and the garden,
and we have mutually woven ourselves,
our beings, together.
perhaps there is a word for it: timebeing’
This leads me to perhaps the most challenging voice as I work within the now well-known, oft-trodden paths of my working space. In his introduction to Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture, Fuller writes, and I believe it is worth quoting extensively:
First, the only way to find things out about what happens when complex objects such as media systems interact is to carry out such interactions—it has to be done live, with no control sample. Objects here should also be understood to mean processes embodied as objects, as elements in a composition. Every element is an explosion, a passion or capacity settled temporarily into what passes for a stable state. […]
It is one of the powers of art or of invention more generally to cross the planned relations of dimensionality—the modes or dynamics that properly form or make sensible an object or a process. As it does so, other worlds gently slip into, swell across, or mutate those we are apparently content that we live in.31
‘i have a very old second screen and two pair of closed headphones on a cheap IKEA desk.
i have a studio that keeps everything dry and at a rather constant temperature.
this is sustained by a myriad of complex systems.
i have email, facebook, a smartphone with apps, a yoga ball to sit on…
the media ecology far surpasses me.
i give my time to this ecology.
i tend to it.’
While he is obviously talking here about more complex, interlaced media systems – such as the focus of his first chapter: contemporary London-based pirate radio, high- and low-tech media systems, and its networks – I find it compelling to consider what other systems, what other worlds might enter into a future articulation of the process. How might moonsong expand into other territories, collaborations, through other media, spaces, spatialization, etc., perhaps morphing into a completely unrecognizable form?
Reflecting on the process of co-composing with theory
Before I reflect on the above in terms of process and products, I would like to tell a story. When I was in seventh grade, around twelve years old, I embarked on a writing project during our daily writing sessions in English class: a science fiction story. This is when I first remember confronting my mind with the challenge to think of a never-before-encountered life form, one that operates according to completely different sensory inputs and communicates in ways that are unimaginable. While this story turned out to be quite conventional, it is the moments spent pondering, trying to think outside of my brain, outside of my lived experience, outside of my own sensory perception that remains with me.
‘the circle is in some ways numerically impossible to pin down. a circle exists. you can draw it, see it, build a house with it, use an exact length of string to create it. but any calculation includes π, of course, so in the end it is defined by an irrational number.
although the hand of a clock moves around exactly the same loop, we understand that the displacement of this exactness comes through an addition of the parameter of time.
3am is not 3pm;
3pm on monday is not the same as 3pm on tuesday;
3pm on monday in april is not the same as 3pm on monday in june;
3pm on monday in april in 2020 is not the same as 3pm on monday in april in 1947.’
This leads back to classic phenomenological paradigms and questions. Pauline Oliveros said, in her kōan-like poem on listening: ‘I could listen to me listening.’32 One is always listening, with more or less awareness, to one’s own listening. One is always touching touch. Listening is a self-reflexive act. One listens through the listening sense that is available to you, and one cannot listen outside of that sense. In Jean-Luc Nancy’s treatise Listening, he writes, in an obliquely positive sense, that musical listening is
like the permission, the elaboration, and the intensification of the keenest disposition of the “auditory sense.” (Musical listening means, in the end, music itself, the music that, above all, is listened to [s’écoute], whether it is written down or not, and when it is written, from its composition all the way to its execution. It is listened to according to the different possible inflections of expression: it is made to be listened to, but it is first of all, in itself, the listening of self.)33
‘I think I’ve done something in-between literal and figurative sonification.’
To bring this back to the cultural act of composing, what I would like to suggest is that the experience of touching your own sense of touch can be applied, metaphorically, in wider and wider circles of interaction. As I try to compose differently, working with the tools I have, differently, all I seem to be doing in the beginning is touching the barriers of what is habitual: composing my composing habits, which are held in place by all the customs and mechanisms that define what composing is, defining what a sonic work and its possible means of reception are. On a societal level, as we notice that we are rapidly heading toward global destabilization and the annihilation of many habitats and their lifeforms, all that Western culture seems able to do is to keep thinking our Western habitual thought patterns and reproducing their emergent systems: extraction of material and labour resources to create surplus capital, often motivated by a compulsory and uncritical prioritization of human convenience, which is not the same as human wellbeing and which is often in opposition to planetary wellbeing.
‘she awakened with a throbbing in her underbelly. she listened.
the aching continued as if the reserves in the womb were gathering for some kind of explosion or implosion.
the longing rose warmly, swirled around her heart.
her breathing quickened, and she listened again.’
What Haraway offers, through her descriptions of acts of multi-species becoming-with and the concept of string figures ‘tying together human and nonhuman ecologies, evolution, development, history, affects, performances, technologies, and more’ in a ‘New New Synthesis’34 is not the need to escape this humanness, with all its sensory organs, sensing itself, but to move forward toward a more aware sensing-with, becoming-with, figuring out how we can live and die response-ably and committed and involved with each other.35
‘saturday she rose at 4:03am and set at 14:29
today she rose at 4:20 and set at 15:37
moving from about 25% to 20% illumination.’
Listening to my first iteration of moonsong, completed at the beginning of June 2020, I immediately hear that my processes, my assumptions, my way of working, are deeply embedded in Western-centered, human-centered, technology- and digital-information-reliant practices. I have not yet composed outside of my compositional habits, of the context in which I have studied and in which I produce. In the initial process, there has been too much rational control, linearity and bounded systems, and not enough sympoeisis. There has been much Anthropos, the ‘upward looking one’36 who has found her quiet solitude in a cool, easy companionship with the regular and silent moon and not enough time spent com-posting with the earthy chthonic ones and their tentacular thinking.
‘of course, repetition is never the same thing once or even twice.
it may even take four or ten times to turn one thing into something else completely.
like the greeting to your neighbor, made one day before and one day after her partner of 63 years dies.’
This means that, besides my untrained voice, the roughness of each take, the first process creates, to my ears, a closed system that can still be teased open much more, and I set out to do this through three different approaches that led to two consecutive iterations.
- In order to give other lifeforms more of a voice, I turned to the field recordings of animal sounds and choruses that I had instinctively been making since the process began. (See ‘Field Recordings’ in ‘Appendix: Artistic process of moonsong’.)
- The second iteration involved taking these recordings and treating them further in order to blend them with my voice and create a hybrid voice. To accomplish this, I turned to the vocoder. (See ‘Vocoder’ in ‘Appendix: Artistic process of moonsong’.)
- The final approach involved creating a series of field recordings at the time of the moon culmination from waxing half-moon (25 August) to waning half-moon (10 September) to create one dusk-to-dawn recording that can be loosely compared to a time-lapse video.
A strong argument against considering the above as an act of multispecies sympoiesis, worlding practices, or a sonic expression of the ‘thick present’, would be the obvious and innate humanness embedded in every single act, from conception to delivery. Even the timing, while it was dependent on the moon, could definitely be considered a choice that was made by me, similar to the way in which the throw of the dice is a fractional, perhaps insignificant, part of an aleatoric work.
‘There are not only circadian rhythms, but also circalunar rhythms,
ways that life on earth has adapted to dynamically respond to the cycles of the moon.’
Those who hear the work and its process as a sonic expression of the ‘thick present’ would hear how almost every recording act was controlled by the timing of the moon; how my voice occupies its own niche in the ecosystem of our house and front and back garden, with the animals certainly dominating the sonic field outside the home for a vast majority of the time each day; and, if you also consider tentacular media ecosystems, how this entire project is controlled and curated by the coding of my computer, interface, microphones, and software and the way they afford the production of sonic materials. This work would, of course, not exist in any form without the machines. But, while it speaks of the time of its making and sings with non-human sounding, this project is certainly not a ‘science art worlding’, ‘in which scientists, artists, ordinary members of communities, and nonhuman beings become enfolded in each other’s projects, in each other’s lives’, coming ‘to need each other in diverse, passionate, corporeal, meaningful ways’, ‘sympoietic, symbiogenetic, and symanimagenic’.37 Could a sonic project exist as such? I would love to explore this.
‘but this whole stress of timing and not liking the temporary solution put a whole new dimension into my approach to the moonsong, and i was irritated and frustrated and grumpy.
so, that was part of the moonsong today.’
As regards the question: How might other overarching theoretical or abstract ideas be introduced into a sonic work?, I only know that the theoretical implications have been interpreted by me, the maker, into a functional utterance, a gesture. I have done something with them that might be considered a translation from idea into material process into sonic output. I do not assume they will be hearable to the listener without this text. Therefore this text has been co-composed with the sonic work and is meant to be read alongside – co-listened to with – the sonic work.
As regards the questions: Are these physiological responses, the qualia of the personal listening response, also part of the way a sonic work generates knowledge or meaning? Can I guess at an average physiological response, and what responsibility do I have toward the listener in mitigating negative responses, even if I deem them necessary in pursuit of my theoretical intent? Since physiological responses to sound connect the everyday life experience of the listener with the world of the sonic work, any physiological responses to sounds would reflect a mutual generation of additional experience at the moment of listening, which could lead toward a construction of meaning or knowledge, through observation or contemplation of this experience. I have listened to this composition many times, and sometimes it grates terribly on my nerves, while at other times I am mesmerized by its tranquil essence. As a composer I feel myself to be first and foremost dedicated to a process and (theoretical) intent. I do carry the responsibility to warn the listener as to possible adverse reactions in the case of extreme volume or low frequency (infrasound) resonation, neither of which are applied in this work. I do have the responsibility to consider the sensibilities of certain audiences if the work is presented in a public, or in any way nonvoluntary, listening environment.
‘Attention as frail as eternity
is woven into the sound of
that next possible breath
that next failing breath
As I hold you
As you hold me, living
In the palm of your hand
Time never …’
Thus, this process has gone through what I perceived as an initial failure and has ended with something that I think is passable as a sonic consideration of the passage of time, a self-reflective artistic process that has not yet truly turned into research. However, a true engagement with Haraway’s concept – in line with the four ‘science art worldings’38 that she describes in her book – would require time, resources, and strategies of engagement that exceed this project. It is exactly this process, and this failure, that has strengthened my belief that the concept of a ‘thick present’ can be a useful one for artists as we continually seek relevance and meaningful engagement with this planet and all the beings that we share life with.
I conclude with a series of questions for you and a return to the ‘thick present’ as a refrain.
Does this sonic work make hearable the time of its making, the durational aspect of its process, within the bounded confines of its digital walls, its enfolding within the package of transferable and consumable sonic product?
Does this sonic work allow the formalized time of the finished work to remain one of many relational objectiles with a dynamic field of emergence that is the time of the creating itself?
How might I work with Donna Haraway’s notion of a ‘thick present’ within a time-based compositional project, and what parts of this notion might be hearable within a sonic work?
‘And now, the moon cycle has both ended and begun anew.
And the time of this moonsong has both ended the first phase and moved into the second.
blessings for you in every cycle of the moon….’
The refrain, a rhythmic operation
What does Haraway actually write about the ‘thick present’?
The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die well with each other in a thick present. […] In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present […] as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.39
Kainos means now, a time of beginnings, a time for ongoing, for freshness. Nothing in kainos must mean conventional pasts, presents, or futures. There is nothing in times of beginnings that insists on wiping out what has come before, or, indeed, wiping out what comes after. Kainos can be full of inheritances, of remembering, and full of comings, of nurturing what might still be. I hear kainos in the sense of thick, ongoing presence, with hyphae infusing all sorts of temporalities and materialities.40
We become-with each other or not at all. That kind of material semiotics is always situated, someplace and not noplace, entangled and worldly. […] Neither despair nor hope is tuned to the senses, to mindful matter, to material semiotics, to mortal earthlings in thick copresence.41
But coral and lichen symbionts also bring us richly into the storied tissues of the thickly present Chthulucene, where it remains possible—just barely—to play a much better sf game, in nonarrogant collaboration with all those in the muddle. We are all lichens; so we can be scraped off the rocks by the Furies, who still erupt to avenge crimes against the earth. Alternatively, we can join in the metabolic transformations between and among rocks and critters for living and dying well.42
I pondered this extensively while writing about the artistic phenomenon Goodiepal, who turned away from computer music altogether and started a ‘brick-based compositional language’ (p. 254) that made fun of the ‘stupidity of modern computer music and media-based art’ (p. 255) in my chapter “Inquiring into the Hack: New Sonic and Institutional Practices by Pauline Oliveros, Pussy Riot, and Goodiepal”, in The Bloomsbury Handbook of Sound Art, ed. Sanne Krogh Groth & Holger Schulze (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), pp. 237-259.
Joanna Demers, Listening Through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 13.
Ibid., p. 22.
Demers offers the reader a brief introduction to these terms, central to Jean-Jacques Nattiez’s foundational work on music semiotics, Music and Discourse (p. 88).
Demers, Listening Through the Noise, p. 25.
Demers traces the concepts and research that has gone into trying to understand how music and sound might refer to something outside of itself, moving from the absolute and programmatic camps of European concert music, through the introduction of methodologies from literary criticism, semiotic approaches, hermeneutics and cultural studies, and offering an overview of the contributions of research institutions like the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM), composers, and theorists. This point of view is also supported by the composer James Andean in his article “Sound and Narrative: Acousmatic Composition as Artistic Research”, in which he writes, ‘the composer’s poietic intentions often blind them to the narrative impact the work will eventually have on a majority of listeners, whose responses in such instances can sometimes take the composer by surprise upon initial public presentations’. James Andean, “Sound and Narrative: Acousmatic composition as artistic research”, Journal of Sonic Studies 7 (2014), n.p.
Developments within practices of field recordings and music sampling have also further augmented music’s ability to create sonic cross-references, as specific recordings can travel from one mix to another, gathering layers of societal meaning, like a meme, at every turn. In “The Poetics and Politics of Pygmy Pop”, Steven Feld introduces the phrase ‘schizophonic mimesis’: ‘a broad spectrum of interactive and extractive practices’, asking ‘how sound recordings, split from their source through the chain of audio production, circulation, and consumption, stimulate and license renegotiations of identity’ (Steven Feld, “The Poetics and Politics of Pygmy Pop,” in Western Music and Its Others: Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music, ed. Georgina Born & David Hesmondhalgh (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), pp. p. 263). On the one hand, recordings ‘retain a certain indexical relationship to the place and people they both contain and circulate’, while ‘[a]t the same time their material and commodity conditions create new possibilities whereby a place and people can be recontextualized, rematerialized, and thus thoroughly reinvented’ (ibid., p. 263).
Michel Chion, ‘The Three Listening Modes’, in Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), pp. 25-28.
Sharon Stewart, “Listening to Deep Listening: Reflection on the 1988 Recording and the Lifework of Pauline Oliveros,” Journal of Sonic Studies 2 (2012), n.p.
Salomé Voegelin, Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art (New York: Continuum, 2010), p. 9.
Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), p. 10.
Ibid., p. 2.
Ibid., p. 4.
Ibid., p. 56.
Ibid., p. 96-97.
Ibid., p. 98.
Ibid., p. 71.
Ibid., p. 30.
Ibid., p. 30.
In a selection of extractions from the 2001 International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences offered on the website ScienceDirect on the topic Autopoiesis, you can read that a widely accepted definition is that autopoietic systems ‘are defined as unities and as networks of production of components that recursively, through their interactions, generate and realize the network that produces them and constitute, in the space in which they exist, the boundaries of the network as components that participate in the realization of the network’ (Maturana 1981, p. 21). Ralf Rogowski, “Law, Autopoiesis in,” in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, ed. Neil J. Smelser & Paul B. Baltes (Elsevier, 2001), pp. 8500–8502, https://www.sciencedirect.com/referencework/9780080430768/international-encyclopedia-of-the-social-and-behavioral-sciences. See also Felix Geyer, ‘Sociocybernetics’, pp. 14549–14554.
Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, p. 33.
Ibid., p. 33.
Erin Manning & Brian Massumi, Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), p. vii.
Ibid., p. 5.
Ibid., p. 4.
Ibid., p. 8.
Ibid., p. 7.
Ibid., p. 53.
Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 1-2.
Ibid., p. ix.
Matthew Fuller, Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), p. 1-2.
Pauline Oliveros, The Roots of the Moment (New York: Drogue Press, 1998), p. 27.
Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening, trans. Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), p. 27.
Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, p. 63.
There is a difference between commitment to and a desire for. Steve Paulson interviews Donna Haraway: ‘[SP] Did you ever feel like you really got to know what Cayenne [Haraway’s dog] was thinking — her subjective experience? [DH] No, I certainly don’t think I ever reached any seriously deep understanding, although I knew more than I did before. Some of it is research-based and some of it is interaction- and play-based. But I didn’t lose any sleep over that question. At the end of the day, it’s who you live with and care about. It’s about mutually felt and lived connection, and we had that, even in all of our ignorance. […] [SP] So there’s an ethics to honoring unknowability? [DH] And otherness. If you take anybody seriously, one of the things you learn is not knowing. That’s one thing I learned from Cayenne and my other dogs. Not knowing is a quasi-Buddhist value. And the appreciation of not knowing and letting that be is something you learn in a serious relationship. It’s a kind of letting go. Not knowing and being with each other not knowing. [SP] That’s so hard! [DH] It’s very hard. But that kind of relationship is also deeply joyful. It takes a lot of restraint, and it takes forgiving each other. It takes forgiving yourself for imposing yourself on the other, for thinking you knew when you didn’t, for not paying enough attention to know when you could have’. Steve Paulson, “Making Kin: An Interview with Donna Haraway,” Los Angeles Review of Books, December 6, 2019, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/making-kin-an-interview-with-donna-haraway/.
Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, p. 183.
Ibid., pp. 71-72.
Ibid., p. 71.
Ibid., p. 10.
Ibid., p. 2.
Ibid., p. 4.
Ibid., p. 56.
- Andean, James, ‘Sound and Narrative: Acousmatic composition as artistic research’, Journal of Sonic Studies 7 (2014), n.p. https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/86118/86119/0/0.
- Bennett, Jane, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
- Chion, Michel, “The Three Listening Modes”, in Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, translated by Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), pp. 25-34.
- Demers, Joanna, Listening Through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
- Manning, Erin, & Brian Massumi, Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
- Feld, Steven, “The Poetics and Politics of Pygmy Pop,” in Western Music and Its Others: Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music, edited by Georgina Born & David Hesmondhalgh (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), pp. 254-279.
- Fuller, Matthew, Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005).
- Geyer, Felix, ‘Sociocybernetics’, in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, edited by Neil J. Smelser & Paul B. Baltes (Elsevier, 2001), pp. 14549–14554. https://www.sciencedirect.com/referencework/9780080430768/international-encyclopedia-of-the-social-and-behavioral-sciences.
- Haraway, Donna, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
- Nancy, Jean-Luc, Listening, translated by Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007).
- Oliveros, Pauline, The Roots of the Moment (New York: Drogue Press, 1998).
- Paulson, Steve, “Making Kin: An Interview with Donna Haraway,” Los Angeles Review of Books, December 6, 2019. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/making-kin-an-interview-with-donna-haraway/.
- Rogowski, Ralf, ‘Law, Autopoiesis in’, in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, edited by Neil J. Smelser & Paul B. Baltes (Elsevier, 2001), pp. 8500–8502. https://www.sciencedirect.com/referencework/9780080430768/international-encyclopedia-of-the-social-and-behavioral-sciences.
- Stewart, Sharon, “Inquiring into the Hack: New Sonic and Institutional Practices by Pauline Oliveros, Pussy Riot, and Goodiepal,” in The Bloomsbury Handbook of Sound Art, edited by Sanne Krogh Groth & Holger Schulze (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), pp. 237-259.
- ———, “Listening to Deep Listening. Reflection on the 1988 Recording and the Lifework of Pauline Oliveros,” Journal of Sonic Studies 2 (2012), n.p. https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/261881/261882/0/0.
- Voegelin, Salomé, Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art (New York: Continuum, 2010).