A Short History of the Supreme
There is a lot of places I have never been to, that remained in my memory for a special reason: Oklahoma, because of Franz Kafka`s book ‘America’, Van in Turkey because of my great-grandfather, Minneapolis, because of Minnie Mouse and Prince, Bedrock because of the Flintstones. Recently the U.S. state Pennsylvania has joined the list. Pennsylvania as a name, visually as well as etymologically inspiring had always been with me. There was nothing however that I could link to it. Now there is two things, a song of mine and the origins of the universe.
About that song, Liebe and Kleine Haustiere, I will write in a later entry. It is stored on the server of the University of Pennsylvania. Shortly after I had discovered this fact, I simply had to open my ears a bit wider when I heard a radio voice mention the name of the North American state. It is a strange reflex of the mind, if you come to think of it. Would I have listened, if I had heard ‘Baden Würtenberg’ instead? I doubt it. Since the geo-tag of my song, news from Pennsylvania was bound to add a fact to my personal reservoir of existence. Or to put it differently, it would extend the border of my personal existence to a further extreme.
An Indian scientist of the University of Pennsylvania had developed a new theory about the origins of the universe. He worked on a model alternative to the Big Bang theory. In the beginning, he stated, the universe was without time. It is said, that if his theory proves to be true, it would do with Einstein what Einstein had done with Newton: make him history. I like the idea of a lazy ever being Sunday morning universe. I always thought of the Big Bang as way too stressful: all that intensity in a little ball, and then BOOM.
At more or less the same time, not far from the town where I was born, a friend of mine had finished reading a book on music. He wrote about it in his SoundBlog. A personal thought was expressed: Language is developed from music. This idea is very much linked to a timeless universe. All sounds were united in shala-lala-la, and then, Bang or not, the hammer of reason must have landed with such force on yet another song, that it broke into zillions of pieces: words. Words move in between islands of timelessness. Those islands can be called dream, ideal, memory or Oklahoma if your name is K.
It was Lyndon Johnson who said that he who is a real man can walk and fart at the same time, or was it Howard Hawks who said this watching John Wayne walk away from him? Whatever. One can wonder if primordial humankind had the ears to distinguish between a fine voice and a my_cat_has_to_throw_up_again_voice. If so, then we have to seriously reconsider to whom we have to attribute the title ‘the oldest profession in the world.’ It might be the ‘rock star.’
Followers of religion world wide can tell you how this or that holy man was known for his beautiful voice. Followers of pop and other cultural damages support their ‘rock stars’ and give them money. Well, supported and idolised them, say, until five years ago. Nowadays the celebration of the star has turned into a big mockery of idol and devotee alike, an attitude that Moses didn’t approve of at all.
Fact is that “rock stars” appear in magazines and on television to answer questions mankind has put to them by mouth of journalists. There is expectation that the person with the beautiful voice is also the keeper of a beautiful thought. The world they represent is perfect as it is: maybe that is why it is impossible to read something ground breaking. Yes, these are very conservative times over there in glamour land. In the world of pop music nothing but really nothing interesting happens. Which I think is a pity, because I like the futility of FM radio, and I do like to hear a nice song come out of it, while I do some kitchen work.
Back to the humming age. Fans and followers must have existed all through the ages, up to the era in which age didn’t matter because there was no time. Voices shot up to the stars. Voices took away fear when the earth rumbled and the skies thundered. Voices brought peace when the food was good and the sun warm. Voices covered the skin with emotions. One quantum leap caused the clock to tick. God was a tiny frog.
Words are best when they loose meaning and dissolve into the sound of a loving voice. Once the mind aims at the restoration of a timeless era, words become a powerful medium. Explain thunder, wind, wild animals, fire, yourself or everything, and one gains the power of knowledge. Explain to as many as possible and you gain power over people. Receive all your answers from an indefinable being who resides in the timeless era and you become the chosen one. Many caravans did meet at the cross roads of culture. Each with their own vocabulary. Each with their own community. Each with their own God. A world like this constitutes a confusing organization to a person in need of order (or an audience). Order means laws are obeyed.
Italy lies within the borders of my personal existence. I lived there and I would like to live there again. Hard headed as I am, and also because of a quality which, I think, is only human, I refuse to return as long as the present prime minister is in charge (to mention or write down his name brings bad luck). The human quality I talk about is the urge to contribute in every way possible to the organization of a society. In respect to the big S. in Italy I am as powerful as a drop of water. As you might know it takes ages to cause a crack in the stone it drips on.
Then I read about a rally held in Rome. More then one hundred thousand people attended it. The one and only reason was to express a sincere concern with the state of the country. Finally the news had reached them that from abroad their country was looked upon with a mixture of contempt and ridicule. To Italians it is fundamental to look good, in every respect. The big Anti that got expressed was against their leader. Very uncommon to Italian use, the title of the rally was in English: Anti B. Day. This puzzled me somehow. But okay. A lot of people showed up. They said “Boo” in various ways and went home again.
Around Christmas another news item drew my attention. In England the designed number one in the charts, a young man who won a talent show, and, of course, looked like every mother’s favourite son in law, got overruled by a facebook community whose campaign had resulted in a different number one. Facebook friends were delighted with the result. This made me think.
The day in Rome was not as much anti B. as it was a celebration of the power of facebook, where the idea for the rally originated. In England it was not “Rage against the Machine” who reached number one, but it was facebook that hit the charts with a bullet. I thought again. A bright vision of hundreds of thousands happy and exalted faces came upon me. A vision of black faces looking up to a stage, a lot of them with tears in their eyes. To the world news the crowd cheered the newly elected president of the United States. But those united there, weren’t they celebrating the most popular friend on Facebook?
Later on Facebook’s Friend of the Year got to win the Noble Price for Peace, because of the things he had said, rather then for the things he had done. He got this price thanks to his ghost writers, a team of capable editors. For a very long time the majority of people were united in a religion. Nowadays a cultural elite is united through facebook. If you want to change the world, you need to be in charge. God can wait.
In the Machine
Normally to define ‘field recordings’ one takes a look at wikipedia, a kind of digital encyclopaedia, which is only one click away to most of us. This reference work has replaced a series of movements, like getting up from your chair, walk to the book shelf, look for the combination of letters that embrace the combination ‘fie’, take the weighty book from the shelf, hold it in one hand, go through the pages, find the lemma, read the definition, get distracted, stay half an hour in one position to read other lemmata that don’t have anything to do with the original subject, close the book, open it again, read the definition of ‘field recordings,’ go back to the desk, sit down at it and stare out of the window for at least twenty minutes with an intense feeling of satisfaction and peace. Those forgotten moments of wonderful boredom, moments that belong to the foundations of a calm existence, have been edited out of our life with the advent of internet.
The definition of ‘field recordings’ as brought to you by wikipedia, talks about recordings made outside the studio. I would specify the definition: “with the intention to use them as or in a composition.” At present the definition is quite paradox. It clearly came up in pre-digital times, when there was an enormous distinction between studio sounds and field sounds. Thanks to digital technology this difference is not so big anymore. A field recorder at work can bring his own little studio with him. It is a studio that is better equipped then the one the original field recorders escaped from. The digital sound, however, is definitely different from the analogue days.
Digital life is different. It institutes hyper realism. It also institutes different levels of perception. It opens the possibility to reach for perfection. It suggests that the ideal expression is within reach, a thought that is only one step away from fundamentalism.
The World is just big Enough
Every one has ears. Not every one has a recording device. And of those with a recording device not every one goes out to capture the sounds of our world. It is easy to understand where the sounds come from. But what happens once these sounds start their voyage? They go into a machine. And, because the sounds were captured with an other intention then to have them stored for ever on a hard disk, at some point they get out of the machine again. At this moment there might be a small or bigger audience present to witness this wonder. So far so good.
But our dear computer and its connection to a world wide web have provided the sound hunter also with an other possibility: on line storage. Of course, the storage place looks attractive enough to ban every idea connected with tons of paper in bad smelling archive places, places you and I would never visit, unless they were in an abandoned building. The most popular storage place is the map. The recorded sound is tagged to the place where it was recorded. The combination is so simple that even city councilors can understand it, with the result that sound maps flourish all over the world… eh wide web.
Field recorders happily contribute with their sounds to the maps. That the audience is an abstract entity is taken for granted. A sense of something bigger, maybe even a bigger sense of something has come over them. Productivity comes from excitement. The excitement comes from a feeling. And this feeling tells the field recorder that he might be on a mission to map the world. We had the cartographers who mapped the entire world. We had the natural historians who mapped the world again. Both groups of discoverers were stimulated by their science. But to what kind of science does the field recorder belong? Up to now he is only backed by his back up and the world wide web. A result is that the field recorders society is a very hermetic one; its members receive stimulus from their peers. Outside recognition hardly exists.
Inside the group the world is seen as an enormous reservoir of sounds. It could even be listened to as if it were an instrument (played by a supreme being). Sure you can listen to it. You can listen at any time, and you don’t need any recording gear for that. The more you listen, the more you will notice that the environment starts to liberate their hidden sounds, up to a point that you hear a composition unfold itself as by magic. Right now some chosen ones press ‘record.’ They are ready to map, or to create, or document, or witness, or cherish or simply enjoy.
They play along with the sounds around them. The equipment, be it a very expensive microphone and its professional recorder, or a Dictaphone bought for a few coins at a flea market are instruments that alter the sound they pick up. The continuation of the process will bring more changes to the recorded sound, up to a point that the reproduction of the originally recorded sound is an idealised version of it. The more serious the approach to the cleanness of sound the more fundamentalist the field recorder will become, up to a point that sounds of an other quality, produced by other instruments are not considered.
The listener is alone.
At all metro stations in Paris you can find a map that shows the underground system; each metro line has a different colour. To me it is a continuous source for inspiration, though I don’t exactly know to what it inspires. Some stations have a map with a really intriguing application. At the bottom of the frame all stops in greater Paris are printed on a metal sheet, behind the names are buttons. To find your destination you have to press the button and look at the map. As long as you hold the button, the map shows which metro line(s) you need: from the station of departure up to the station of arrival all stops are lit. It almost feels like Christmas. Often enough I cannot resist to press other buttons to see more strings of light appear on the map.
The developers of Soundtransit.nl, a website where lots of recordings are stored, must have had the same kind of childish enthusiasm. Visitors to the site are invited to book a flight, for example Berlin-Bansko. In Paris the metro stations were made visible with a cute little light. On the site the transit lounges between Berlin and Bansko are made audible by a sound recorded on location and uploaded to soundtransit’s archive by one of its numerous contributors. The website was received pretty well, and got some awards in weblandia. I don’t know if this means something. Word has it also that the sheik of Dubai is a great poet. Nowadays the website looks pretty much out of date. There is no place as futile as the internet. The makers might consider to convert soundtransit.nl into an iPhone application: free for economy class, $1,99 for business class.
Derek Holzer is one of the masterminds behind soundtransit. He survives with his art. This means he has to go through a lot of hardship, which includes writing letters, apply for funding and more correspondence with authorities. He is not the odd one out. Over the last twenty years artists are forced to use a language which is developed by invisible bureaucrats, low quality politicians and office managers. There is no other way to get access to public money.
Around New Year he gave his colleagues a present: three recordings of Bulgarians who defined a Christian community by playing church bells. This on-line gift described at the same time in a very subtle way that religion is a psychological space, circumscribed by the range of the calendar. Derek’s accompanying text is a proof of how contact with bureaucrats contaminates and simplifies language and information. The result ( a mixture of Lonely Planet, Donald Duck, reflective praise and private diary ) is, to be honest, the best way to use the internet if you want to present field recordings: imagine your reader is eleven years old. It is a law applied by the media since long.
Rather then present to you an in depth analysis of his text and how it indirectly anticipates a near future when field recordings as an art will encounter a broader recognition, I would like to tell you the story of my great-grand father Hassan Van Ala Biki.
The life of my great-grandfather was long and adventurous. Born in an eroding Ottoman Empire around 1830, he lived to see the birth of the modern world with its cars, aeroplanes and moving images. He died in Rome on the 4th of July 1933. To describe his life would take more then the few lines I will use now to depict one episodes of it. But allow me to introduce him shortly.
My great great grandfather was a Tartar from Samarkand, who knew how to ride a horse and cultivate kefir. It was because of his future wife Anna Armatorian, a daughter of an Armenian merchant, that he decided to settle himself in Van. In the early nineteenth century the town was a cross road of cultures where Russians, Armenians, Jews, Arabs and nomads from the Asian steppe mingled and traded business. My great-grandparents made their living by selling grilled fish that they caught in the lake of Van. Grilled fish was sold everywhere on the streets in those days. They managed to survive, because they were the only ones who served the fish with a sauce, a mixture of chopped pickles, olives, onion, herbs dissolved in a solution of kefir and eggs. This sauce has developed into the Tartare sauce as we know it now. But it was my family who invented it.
Hassan’s parents had a bit of money to lay aside, so they saw to it that their (only) son attended school and learned to play an instrument: the tuba. I have to skip a lot of my great-grandfather’s biography, with regret I must say, because the town where he grew up was incredibly colourful and populated with strange personalities. The Ottoman Empire was crumbling down. Authorities were either corrupt or cruel. Nonetheless it was a town full of wit and joy.
Hassan got into trouble because of a certain talent he developed while playing the tuba. Legend has it that he was quite good at it; he could even produce overtones while playing. Later incidents however show that these overtones were produced by a special way of farting. Indeed our family chronicles mention this special talent. Hassan used objects to change the timbre of his farts. Barrels, big clay pots, surfaces of different material, but also the moving of his bottom influenced the sound of his farts.
Helped by his mother’s pickled cabbage he could extend the duration of his farts to an impressive series of blows that lasted for five minutes without a pause. He first got into trouble when he ‘whistled’ God Save the Queen, during a visit of the English consul. It was not as much the smell (his mother was as wise enough to use fresh lavender and rose oil by the preparation of her pickled cabbage) that provoked the incident, but the laughter that gradually swelled into a giant roar while the English anthem was played.
The action that forced him to leave Van was a long prepared piece that one faction of my family considers a musical composition; another minority thinks of it as a practical joke; the majority however saw a political protest in it. Fact is that exact timing and tonality as well as rhythm were important parts of it. It was a fart that sounded as the breaking of thunder, low in volume at its beginning as a distant rumbling, but massive at its end as if the earth he stood on cracked. A second quality of his piece was its melodic line that copied exactly the first phrase of the call to prayer, which the muezzins of that time stretched to a good minute: Allah Akhbar. My great-grandfather ended his eloquent petard exactly at the moment that the Muezzin raised his voice. He could have gotten away with it unnoticed. But he repeated it again at the last day of the Ramadan in the courtyard of the great mosque. He had to run for his life.
And he had to escape from Van, leaving his mother in tears. His father hid him in a barrel full of smoked trout. After five days he reached the Black Sea, where the barrels were loaded on a ship that sailed him to Burgas. For the rest of his life he would carry a faint smell of smoked trout on him. Not to his disadvantage. His future wife, my great-grandmother recognized the perfume, that was so typical for the recipe of the region of Van. It was love at first smell, because also my great-grandmother’s scent was, to say the least, rather peculiar. But how she came to that, is, as you might have guessed, an other story