Speaking In Tongues

July 21, 2018

In June 2018, I participated in the Arteles Creative Centre ‘Back to Basics’ residency programme.  Arteles is located in a rural area near Hämeenkyrö, Finland and is host to more than 140 selected international artists and creative professionals each year.  The centre runs a variety of themed residency programmes.  ‘Back to Basics’ was particularly appealing to me as it featured no Wi-Fi and no mobile phones – just an intensive period of focus on artistic practice. 

 

Among the centre’s many excellent facilities was the mediation room.  I had never really meditated before, but I was very keen to give it a try.  Asked at the end of the month what my thoughts of the (optional) meditation aspect of the programme were, my response was that it had unexpectedly become a crucial part of my daily routine whilst living and working at the centre.  The first week had been especially fruitful: I can recall several sittings, shortly after the meditation bell rang, experiencing wonderful creative epiphanies and having to frantically scribble down notes after the session.  It felt at the time that by meditating, these ideas were almost magically popping into my head as if from nowhere.  What I later came to realise, however, was that prior to the residency, my brain had become like a muddy windscreen and that the ideas were actually already there, I just needed to clean the crap off the windscreen in order to see them.

 

I had arrived in Finland with the aim of focusing on the musicality of the Finnish language.  This proved to be much more challenging than I had first anticipated.  Finland is a stark contrast to Sri Lanka, where I had spent time on a residency the year before.  From the moment I had stepped out of the airport in Colombo, I had been confronted with loud voices and the honking of horns, and it soon became apparent that this sonic chaos was not isolated to the capital city.  Landing in Tampere on the other hand, I found a city that felt almost deserted.  As I came to discover, Finland is a very quiet country!  

 

According to the European Environment Agency’s ‘Quietness Suitability Index’, “Finland, Ireland, Sweden and the United Kingdom have the highest proportions of quiet areas [in Europe].” [1]  Besides the overall lack of noise pollution, there was a general quietness that I encountered with the Finnish people.  When I made my first visit proper visit to Tampere (the most populous inland city in the Nordic countries) with the simple aim of recording natural Finnish conversations, I really struggled.  It seemed to me that people in general spoke in very hushed tones wherever I went – cafes, shops, the main street.  It felt a bit like being in a library.  In one café I visited, people spoke very quietly to each other and sat in silence for long periods of time.  Finns, it turns out, do not do small talk.  I later read in Joanna Nylund’s book, Sisu: The Finnish Art of Courage, about “companionable silences” and sharing of “unrushed moment[s] together” by the Finns. [2]  I found this really very refreshing, if a little frustrating in terms of my recording goals.

 

Upon returning to the centre, I listened through all of the recordings I had taken on my visit and found that there was very little which was usable – at least for the purposes I had in mind.  Around this time, though, fellow resident, Isabelle Desjeux asked me to record Arteles assistant Ida Mantere reading a Finnish translation of La Fontaine’s Fables for a task that she was attempting (‘Learn Finnish in a Month!’)  I later listened back to the recording and started playing around with it a bit – isolating particular words that stood out to me (e.g. a particular vowel sound that had a shape or pitch-bend that I hadn’t heard in English before).  At that time, I didn’t have a clear plan and was really just letting instinct do its thing, but I felt like there was something really worth pursuing.

 

I began working with the recordings of Ida’s recitation in more depth and, gradually, a process developed: I selected three short sections from the original recording that stood out to me (the reason being that these were the least English-sounding and felt, to my ears, to be the most distinctly Finnish).  I wrote out a kind of phonetic transcription of what I was hearing and deliberately avoided reading the Finnish translation, which Isabelle had to hand.  I’d then transcribe the pitches and rhythms of each section. 

It occurred to me that identifying and notating the pitch and rhythm of spoken word is a relatively straightforward process.  Timbre, on the other hand, is not so easy to realise with traditional notation.  Sounds such as aspirates (which there seems to be frequent use of in Finnish) can, of course, be indicated with a ghost note (where the notehead is replaced with an x), but more complex and shifting tone qualities cannot be as effectively transcribed.  This is, arguably, where graphic scores have the advantage.

 

Over the course of the first couple of weeks at Arteles, we came to learn more about each other’s practices.  The group included visual artists, sculptors, designers, photographers, a poet, and me.  I can’t quite put into words how inspired and in awe I felt in the presence of these people.  Each artist had their own, unique way of looking at the world, that made me question my own outlook in the best possible ways.  As the residency progressed, discussions of possible collaborations between the artists began.  I found something of a kindred spirit in Iranian visual artist, Pedram Sadeghbeyki.  Pedram had done work in the past with visualisation of sound.  At Arteles, he had been especially inspired by the Finnish landscape and was interested in collaborating on an interactive installation work, with me providing the music and sound.

 

I was similarly keen to enlist Pedram’s help for a project that I had begun formulating.  I had been thinking a lot about the ephemeral nature of the spoken word – all sound dies as soon as it’s spoken, and recorded sound is merely a copy, a representation rather than a preservation.  It struck me that there was something analogous in my process with that of an insect collector: a butterfly, for example, cannot be pinned to a board without it dying, and what is preserved is only a shell, an echo of something else.  As sound designer Walter Murch observed, prior to the introduction of notation, “music was the main poetic metaphor for that which could not be preserved”[3].  It could be argued, however, that the metaphor still stands, even after notation and the capability to record sound:

 

The basic truth about sounds, it would seem, is that they never last.  You cannot collect and keep a beloved sound, as you can a letter or a flower or a lock of hair.  You may have a recording of it, of course – a recording on a wax cylinder or magnetic tape, or, if you lack these technical facilities, directly into your heart (the word ‘recording’ literally means learning by heart, after all).  But recording is not the same as preservation: it is a technique of mimicry, imitation, or reproduction – like making a mould of a carving, so that replicas can be cast from it even if the original does not survive.  It is a peculiarity of sounds, it seems, that they cannot be conserved, but only recorded and reproduced.[4]

 

I began to conceive of a ‘butterfly board’ for spoken words; a display case in which sounds could be pinned.  I shared my thoughts with Pedram and we discussed various possible processes for creating visualisations of the recorded words.  It felt conceptually appropriate for the visualisations to be still images – I imagined scraps of paper, as thin as dragonfly wings, each with its distinctive, corresponding mark.  I gave Pedram several variations of the three recordings (EQ’d, filtered, and time-stretched versions) to work with.  After designing a specific algorithm to respond to the sonic material, he came up with some wonderfully insectoid results.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Isabelle had been keen to record some other translations of the Fables, which also proved very helpful to me.  By the end of the residency, we had recordings in Finnish, Persian, Dutch, Italian, French, Korean, and English.  I now had a methodology which I was happy with and could apply to each translation.  It was fascinating to compare the results: everyone (male and female) spoke within the range of the octave below middle C; of all the readings, the Dutch version seemed to be the most dynamic melodically while the others tended to move by step – the Persian reading was almost consistently chromatic; and rhythmically, the Italian reading was particularly interesting with its lilting, syncopated patterns.  But it was the timbres in each recording which were the most defining characteristics: the aspirates in Finnish, the guttural sounds in Persian, or the quiet percussiveness of Korean.

 

The project has two key aims in applying its particular methodology: the first is to unlock the compositional potential of the recorded sounds; the second is to conceptualise the (often strange) act of archiving – which will eventually take the form of a visual art piece. 

 

By the end of my time at Arteles, I felt that my work had taken something of a new direction – or at least a significant new pursuit had been established.  It wasn’t until after the fact that I realised that my concept for the ‘butterfly board’ of spoken word was an entirely visual one.

 

 

 

 

[1] EEA Report, No 14/2016, p. 22

 

[2] Sisu: The Finnish Art of Courage, Joanna Nylund, p. 42

 

[3] http://www.bldgblog.com/2007/04/the-heliocentric-pantheon-an-interview-with-walter-murch/

 

[4] I See a Voice: A Philosophical History, Jonathan Rée, p. 23

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