Ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union four members of the Leningrad Philharmonic escaped from the Russian winter and went on tour. I saw them on Dutch television. I saw them also play next to the entrance of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The string quartet played beautifully. Onlookers were very generous. In front of the camera they said that they earned more money as street musicians then as part of the Philharmonic orchestra back home. A few weeks later I saw them again in Malaga, city of palm trees and Mediterranean Sea. Also a winter in Amsterdam can be cold, especially if you have to play on the streets.
Another ten years later trained musicians can get a permission to play in the subterranean walkways that connect the platforms of the subway system. Other trained musicians, who were more lucky or more trained or more talented or deeper rooted in a network can still play as a part of a Philharmonic orchestra in one of the many concert halls that were built and designed for the performance of orchestral music.
These concert halls with their architecture, acoustic qualities, programming and its institutional micro-cosmos are an important expression of the achievements of western civilisation. Hence, the music performed in there defines and re-assures western culture. But what gets defined and re-assured by trained musicians who play on the streets or under it?
It took a Dutchman to invent a machine to sell air. Gas stations have installed this machine. You insert one euro and you get one minute of high pressure air in return. It is not as radical as claiming the air as property and sell it by cubical meters. Also here a question can be raised. Thanks to the air sounds can be heard and recorded. Do these sounds have a copyright?
Another achievement of western culture is the invention of machines that can record and reproduce sound. People who work with sound have also machines at their disposal that can change the nature of this sound drastically. The primal bang is not necessarily a tune that classical trained ears recognize as music. The hum of a refrigerator or a bumble bee can be used as well. But also the recording of a trained musician who plays ‘Einstein on the Beach’ at the Metro stop of Odeon in Paris can be used. Another fine question: to whom does this music belong once it has ended on my recorder? Can I use it again in one of my performances without having to pay for its copyrights? And why should I use this particular recording, which comes with the sounds of foot steps, random conversations, the distant calling of the metro train?
Western culture finds its expression in the works of Hildegard von Bingen, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Serge Gainsbourg or his daughter by means of their music. All through the centuries instruments got invented to add different tunes or nuances to music. Music defined the instruments and the instruments defined the music. In most households playback devices are used to listen to this music.
In the margins of sub-culture, those margins that only catch some light when a police torch shines on it, the little effect machines, the playback and recording devices, are used to not only manipulate sound; with it the artist creates a completely new work of art, for which a common denominator still has to be found.
If art expresses a period in time or a moment in eternity, then this new art form in all its turmoil is in the first place a manifesto. The declaration is not put in words, because words get absorbed by other words and then find their deplorable end in a blog or among zillions of other words on printed pages. The message is in its repetition. With every performance and mini-release a marginal culture gets defined and re-assured.
One first step out of the great confusion is marked by the use of field recordings. The listener leaves the bomb shelter and can see more clearly. The artist uses recording and playback devices as his instrument. Sounds are used from our immediate environment. To play back a simple recording creates certain awareness, defines and re-assures our appearance in history at a certain place and time. Paradoxically enough, dislocation creates unification. Awareness is created, not by means of words, but by playing back the sounds of the environment.
Playing field recordings is not a form of music, but a form of free speech. In quite a few cases the intrinsic moral message is just a few liner notes away: to take care of our environment. Apart from the activist point of view the new art form is also an expression of a thorough research on how to re-organize social life on a non-institutional and non-commercial level. It points at intuition. It also wants to provoke a shift of perception in which the apparent not seems to be so apparent. It points at responsibility for the world we live in as a clear reaction to consumerism.
Therefore elements from our environment get incorporated, defined and re-defined in the work of sound, thus creating a three-dimensionality that stretches through diverse layers of time. It is this quality that clearly distinguishes the new art form from music.