Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Standing Stones of Stenness

Living in the city I don’t get to see many musicians interacting directly with the landscape, but reading reviews I get the impression that there are now few remote islands and windswept shores that don’t get a visit from passing sound artists – the twenty-first century equivalent of the late Romantic landscape painters. And yet despite all the activity, it seems it’s not always easy to make experimental music in hostile environments… even when the audiences are receptive, the landscapes can remain unresponsive. Take, for example, Biba Kopf’s description in The Wire of the Resonant Spaces events in Scotland this summer, featuring saxophonist John Butcher and sound artist Akio Suzuki. At the Standing Stones of Stenness, Butcher found the ancient stones difficult to work with: “the echo effects were definitely there… I tried short, piercing, rapid attacks on the tenor, and that was interesting for sounding out the stones. But I couldn’t see a way of working musically with that.” However, the high-pitched multiple tones of his amplified soprano produced the morning’s first breakthrough. “The surprising thing was that the previously reasonably silent sheep, who were gathered in the far corner of the Stones area, recognised qualities in those sounds and they started bleating,” smiles Butcher. Eventually things did come together, when Butcher stopped blowing and allowed the wind to play his amplified soprano (there is a photograph here).

The strong wind at the Standing Stones also did its best to drown out Akio Suzuki’s analopos (an acoustic echo instrument). However, he can be seen here playing it at another concert in Smoo Cave, Durness. The Resonant Spaces site has samples of Suzuki playing the analapos and stone flute. Suzuki’s flutes are actually fragments of landscape: naturally eroded stones (a posting on BLDGBLOG speculates that one day Europe’s fossilised reef could form a vast musical landform along similar lines). Suzuki has spent many years making sound art in the landscape using natural forces like the wind. For example, in 1988 he created a space in the mountains of Aminocho near Kyoto so as to spend an entire day listening to the sounds of nature. He built ‘two parallel walls of sun dried bricks which produce a unique echo effect similar to the famous “roaring dragon” walls at Tosuga Shrine in Nikko’ (quoted in David Toop’s Haunted Weather). In 1996 his contribution to the Berlin Sonambiente Festival was to walk the city and mark with a special listening symbol any spot where he heard an interesting sound, creating an alternative to the traditional itinerary. He made a similar work the following year, mapping the town of Enghien-Les-Bains to locate the areas where echoes were most resonant.

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