The theatre work group (actual name TBC) I’m a member of has been workshopping ideas over the past couple of months for a new theatre project to be presented in 2018-2019. Each fortnight a different member of the group has run a session incorporating texts and activities which benefit the development of ideas and concepts for the eventual project. A couple of weeks ago I ran a sound-based session focussing primarily on the work of Alvin Lucier; specifically a performance work called Vespers (1968) where performers navigated themselves in a space (either in the dark or blindfolded) using sound devices to map out the space. Whilst our session performances in the video below are not entirely faithful to the original Vespers score (the lack of clicking Sondols diminishing the echolocative emphasis of the work), I would regard these performances as broad interpretations of Vespers, using the performance format of the work as a point of departure for exploring aspects of group listening, sensory depreviation, acoustical awareness and exploration of space.
Continuing the recent trend of looking back at past work and its intersections with present activities and preoccupations, I thought that this time around I would return to where I found myself approximately ten years ago.
This is essentially a post about how a teapot salvaged my Masters degree and went on to form the basis of an installation work that I’ve presented a couple of times over the years. The teapot in question began its sonic journey ten years ago and has been used in conjunction with loudspeakers, microphones and other electronic paraphanalia more than actually brewing tea. This was to be its fate.
Trust in Crate.
To set the scene it was mid-March 2007. I’d arrived in the morning at Sebastian Tomczak’s parents house in Brighton carrying my Tascam 424 Portastudio and a milkcrate full of non-musical objects. The milkcrate and its contents were an important component of this visit. In 2004, Seb hosted the first Milkcrate, a music project he devised whereby participants are required to create music using only the contents of their milkcrate over a continuous 24-hour period. I’d participated in the second Milkcrate which was held in the Brighton scout hall in January 2005. That was a strange experience. I’d recently come off a particularly humiliating break-up and had spent a good week shacked up in my room not speaking to anyone. By the time I arrived at the scout hall on a sunny January morning I was having tremendous difficulty verbally communicating or acknowledging anyone present. Eventually I loosened up and got into the flow of making a racket with a pair of speakers, a couple of objects and load of feedback. Good times!
By March 2007, the ‘Crate was up to its thirteenth installment and had been hosted in a variety of locations including Adelaide University, my sharehouse in Stirling and a former art and music venue, The Gallery Delacatessen. All manner of objects were exploited during these sessions – various kitchen implements, plastic tubing, wineglasses, aerosol cans, etc – with the musical outcomes encompassing a variety of styles. Where one participant might be producing a soothing ambient bed of textures, another might be rendering a monolithic slab of abrasive noise. Up to that point I’d participated in a few of the sessions with results ranging from admirable to fucking horrendous. Whilst one could sometimes attribute (or pass off) the dubious quality of their work to a lack of sleep over a 24-hour period, some of the ideas I incorporated into given pieces (in spite of dulled faculties) now seem downright inexcusable. A track from Milkcrate 6 comes to mind, a piece entitled “Carnal Pivot” where a short shrill EDM beat is followed by the audible penetration of a peach with a blunt pencil. Throbbing Gristle much?
I arrived at Seb’s parents house with next-to-no fruit molesting intentions and instead set my motivations on exploiting a variety of resonant objects in my Milkcrate, including a big red teapot. This is where my eventual work, Infuser took its origins.
At this point in my life I was pretty miserable. I’d (again) come off a break-up and was looking more worse for wear than usual. I had begun to live in a shit-brown coloured leather jacket with wide lapels and not bothered to wash my hair in about a month. I was pretty much broke with a dribble of income coming in from music technology tutoring and trying desperately to resurrect my Masters after acrimoniously abandoning it the previous year. My life was a depressed slag-heap consisting of misery, apologies and late rent, so surrendering myself to spontaneous music making over 24-hours seemed like a good idea.
Paging Alvin Lucier.
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I Am Sitting In A Teapot
One of the composer Alvin Lucier’s lesser know later works is a piece called Nothing Is Real (1990) and consists of a performance involving a piano, teapot and amplification system. The title of the work derived from a line in The Beatles’ 1967 track, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and the melody which accompanies the song’s lyrics are played on the piano during the performance; albeit with a deliberate free-time feel and sustained tone clusters giving the melody a slightly disjointed, yet recognizable feel. On top of the piano is a teapot, and placed near the teapot is a microphone. Whist the pianist is playing the melody to “Strawberry Fields Forever” a recording is being made of the performance. Once the pianist has finished the melody, a small loudspeaker positioned inside the teapot broadcasts the recording of the performance. At various points the lid of teapot is lifted and this radically affects the resonant response of the piano – with blooms of rich harmonics materialising from the piano’s body. It’s a beautiful, elegant work. You can watch a performance of this work performed by Lucier below.
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With my Tascam 424 Portastudio, a little loudspeaker, small microphone and Big Red I would record the sound of the teapot and broadcast its sound back into the teapot’s chamber until its natural resonance had reinforced fully. Whilst my teapot process was in part inspired by Lucier’s work, Nothing Is Real it was his seminal electro-acoustic work, I am sitting in a room (1970) that really brought my own process to fruition.
Explained succinctly, I am sitting a room consists of a performance work which involves spoken text and two recording devices. Following the initial recitation of the text, a recording of this is then broadcast back into the performance space – whilst being simultaneously re-recorded – until the natural resonant frequencies of the room are reinforced.
The spoken text also operates as a score:
I am sitting in a room. Different to the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice, and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the natural resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves. What you will hear then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated my speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but rather to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.
Depending on the dimensions of the room, a performance of Lucier’s work can take up to 40 iterations of the process of broadcast/re-recording until the natural resonant frequencies are reinforced. Applying this process with the intimate confines of a teapot streamlines the iterative process considerably whereby the resonant frequency of a teapot can be established over 3-5 repetitions of this process.
The process utilized in I am sitting in a room is similar to the process of photocopying the same thing over and over again. Imagine you have the front page of a newspaper consisting of a header, headlines, some images and a bunch of text. If you make a photocopy of this material and then proceed to photocopy it again and again, gradually certain elements of the material will become indistinguishable from their original source – losing aspects of their detail and semblance – and eventually becoming a homogenous blot of ink.
So I went to work: hunched over the teapot, making sure the microphone was positioned appropriately within its chamber and placing an appropriately sized loudspeaker in place of the teapots lid. Four to five iterations of the process of recording/broadcasting brought the Big Red’s voice out.
Big Red salvages Masters degree
In the past couple of weeks I have re-activated my status as a post-graduate student at Adelaide University. Though I had considered my life as a student to be officially over after last year’s debacle, a handful of people managed to coerce me back into the fold. The research on Alvin Lucier re-commences!, complete with rocks, teapots, stairwells and the University’s resources at my disposal. The provisa [sic] is of course I am undertaking my study as a part-timer and I won’t complete my degree until around December 2008. This means plenty of research centric posts over the next 18 months. Hooray for you dear reader! (blog post, 29th March 2007)
Enthused by the results of this Milkcrate session, the following month I booked a studio at the Electronic Music Unit and used my MiniDisc recorder, microphone, an amplifier and ProTools to replicate the process.
A key aspect that distinguished the teapot process from the one utilized in Lucier’s I am sitting in a room was that the teapot process didn’t begin with a voice or any other sound, rather it began with silence. This was one of the most compelling things about exploring this process during the Milkcrate session; hearing a resonant voice coaxed out of seemingly nothing. Of course, there was something there, and within the context of the Milkcrate session, the activity of fellow participants in adjoining rooms of the house and street traffic could be heard on the periphery of the teapot’s quiet chamber. Over a couple of repetitions of the process, these incidental sounds would dissolve into a harmonic texture consisting of several perceptible harmonic frequencies.
Obviously, the architecture of a room differs significantly from the inner chamber of a teapot, so the complex acoustic properties of the teapot’s interior made the process of coaxing out and reinforcing resonant frequencies an occasionally delicate affair. For one, I needed to dutifully monitor the volume level from one iteration to the next as the unpredictable harmonic response within that little chamber would cause frequencies to amplify significantly and materialise in all their ugly distorted glory. Rather than being frustrating, this instead became a way of learning how to bring out the teapot’s frequencies effectively – a tweak of the volume here, a slight attenuation of middle-band EQ there. Later on, when I would put Big Red with other teapots for an ‘ensemble performance’ I would need to learn how to play other teapots of various dimensions and materials. Every one is unique in itself. I’ve found that porcelain teapots are the most manageable during a recording process, whereas thin metal teapots are an absolute nightmare to get anything worthwhile out of.
 In 2007 I acquired a bunch of about 6-8 metal teapots from the 1950s. Whilst they were aesthetically interesting from a visual point of view, they were absolutely useless for furthering my research. Later that year, I was packing the last of my possessions for a move to a new sharehouse I decided that these teapots were not going to join me on the next stage of my life. As it was very late in the evening and being a bit wired by the whole moving ordeal, I took the teapots down to the nearby beach, arranged them by the water’s edge and let them be taken out by the tide. This is (now) known as littering.
By around 2008 the teapot process began to find form as an installation work which I had called Infuser, the title being a poetic reference to the process of brewing tea leaves which I also considered an appropriate analogy for the technical process of reinforcing the resonant frequencies of the teapot.
I can’t recall the exact background, but in 2009 I was invited to participate in a group exhibition at a newly established artist-run gallery in North Adelaide. The exhibition was called The Art of Tea and featured work from painters, ceramicists and sculptors. The exhibition seemed like the a perfect opportunity to present my work to the public for the first time. Three teapots featured in this version of the work.
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A couple of years later I submitted Infuser for the 2011 Format Festival and it was exhibited in the front area of the Format venue in the Adelaide CBD. Seven teapots featured in this version of the work.
For each of these installations, I sequenced the looped playback of each of the channels so that there would be a fade-in and fade-out of the resonant frequencies, followed by a silence. I made each of these sequences at different lengths so that when each of the recordings began a new loop they would fall out of phase with each other creating different tonal and textural patterns. Obviously, the more teapots that were introduced the more complex and varied the patterns became. This was certainly the case of the Format installation.
Infusing the present
Infuser hasn’t been exhibited since the Format installation in 2011 and as other projects have taken priority in the following years, I haven’t really had an opportunity to revisit the work. I did utilise a very similar process to the recording of the teapots for my work, Five Voices (2015) where bottles of different sizes were recorded in a manner so as to reveal their resonant frequencies.
Where I had previously begun the recording process with silence, by this point I had discovered that it more favourable to begin the process with an impulse (similar to Lucier’s spoken text) as this allowed the subsequent process of re-recording to be a bit easier to manage in terms of volume, equalisations and following the behavior of the resonant response with each iteration. Since I didn’t want to use anything readily identifiable or dynamic as a voice or instrument, I used a clip of continuous white noise that would serve as a consistent acoustic impulse for the resonant frequencies to reinforce themselves around.
So, what’s happening now? Well, Big Red’s currently in the upstairs studio joining a few of the others for some impromptu jam sessions. There’s nothing to present as yet but I’m pleased with outcomes so far – it’s been lovely to reacquaint myself with this work and hopefully there will be another installation sometime in the future.
Reflecting on Big Red, I tend to regard this teapot as I would any other musical instrument. Much like a guitar, it’s symbolic of various artistic and social activities over the years. It also wears the marks of usage with a couple of scratches and a very recent chip near its spout. It’s imbued with good memories and long may it continue to be there as a familiar and reliable presence in my practice.
Having said this though, every teapot is significant whether it’s used for sound art or conventionally making tea for oneself or good company. As an object, teapots can possess a deep personal significance – tied to aspects of domesticity, socialising, ritual and aesthetics. These are broader and potentially interesting threads to follow, but that’s something to explore another time. The tea’s getting cold.
It’s ten years since I made my first sound installation work, Pink Twine. How the time goes!
To commemorate this, I’ve made the 2014 release of the Pink Twine audio a free download for the entirety of February. I’ve also written some new liner notes which include photos from the installation of the work.