A search for the non-specific situation
This project deals with the musical content of speech, especially the relationship between spontaneous conversations and improvised music. The focus on real life conversations rather than live readings and performances meant that I had to use recordings of such conversations as my main source material. My first aim was to gather a wide range of speech genres that would be starting points for different musical explorations.
When working on this I started looking for an overall concept regarding which recordings to use. An idea about from where and when these conversations took place that could emerge as a theme through the project.
This set me off in many different directions. One of the more varied and useable sources I found was recordings from a 2001 series of reality television. Though from a narrow demographic selection, this material included a range of different speech genres both formal and informal, happy, angry, sad, personal, leisurly etc. The participants were recorded for a long time and acted quite natural after some weeks.
Otherwise, when looking at possible sources like theatre and movies I constantly ran into the typical anthropological problem of observing and recording authentic situations unaltered by the presence of a third party with a microphone. Actors stick to the kinds of speech genres that we expect to hear in the different formats of staged reality, whether it is on stage, cinema, television or radio. This led me to consider looking into surveillance recordings as a possible source of authentic situations.
Apart from the obvious ethical considerations, I thought this approach could perhaps become an interesting topic in itself providing a conceptual frame for the musical explorations and also relevant as a comment to the trend of more and more surveillance and interception of mass communications in society that we see today.
I contacted the Stasi Archive in Berlin and got permission to obtain and use actual surveillance recordings that agents at the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit recorded in East Germany during the 1980s. But when trying to use this material it became clear that the connotations and the strong context made it far too powerful to use the way I had intended in my music. The context simply took over and made it all about living in an oppressive state and the music became secondary. While this was clearly interesting in it self, it was an entirely different project than the one I was working on.
To continue with the musical exploration of speech I instead gathered a wide range of less historically specific recordings from different sources like radio and television as well as linguistic databases of recorded natural speech, and in addition making some recordings of my own as well.
When working with this diverse material over time, developing and exploring the musical traits in different speech genres, it became evident that while the reality-TV recordings were very rich in expression, the things that worked best in practice was the least recognisable sources. Especially in ensemble settings when I was improvising with another performer, these easily identifiable sources with a common popular cultural reference from mass media seemed to really stick out and conflict with the ongoing musical discourse. I had an conversation with my supervisor Øyvind Brandtsegg about these issues:
Daniel: It seems to be a problem when bringing too much contextualized content into an otherwise non-contextualized musical situation, especially when improvising with another musician. It takes the focus away from what is happening musically.
On the other hand, I also feel a need to have a consistent selection of material constituting a conceptual framing of the project.
Øyvind: This is an Interesting issue that is somehow central to your project.
D: Yes, it is an important question for the whole project. Have been contemplating this from the very start, but up until now it has been more pressing to get things to work technically and musically.
Ø: Are you perhaps looking for some way of staging of the music? A context that provides a direction but at the same time freedom?
D: Yes, some sort of anchor point, framing or approach that clearly defines a field within which I can operate freely.
Ø: I have some questions (regarding the problem of contextual content): has this to do with the literary content, situation, mood, setting, or also that the dialogue is bound in time?
D: I think it probably has most to do with the connections to the concrete reality around any recognisable persons and the context that this imposes on the music.
Ø: Is this comparable to the content of lyrics in vocal music? Or the stories that are told in spoken word music? (Laurie Anderson, Golden Palominos med Nicole Blackman, etc)
D: Yes, me and Tone Åse talked about that and she felt the same about using written texts in an improvised setting, and would often choose the most abstract texts for this reason. I think this is more of a problem in improvised music where the music is already about the live interaction of musical ideas, than in a composition which already relates to the textual content.
Ø: Do you need one solution for this or could you do different things for different musical results?
D: No, not necessarily one final solution. Different pieces and musical settings could use different solutions.
Ø: What is it about ensemble improvisation that makes this problem more precarious?
D: Perhaps improvised musical dialogues seeks to establish a common formal language that creates its own abstract context, and when bringing in material with an external context pointing outside the time and space of here and now, this creates a conflict of what we are dealing with.
So, to conclude – what I am looking for, I think, is something that can represent the idea about generalised social situations, without being so specific that one gets involved in the individual stories. At the same time i feel that it has to be a sort of consequence, an overall idea or concept that makes clear why I am using this or that source, but without taking over as the sole content of the music.
Using the Stasi surveillance recordings introduced too much context which actually took over as content. To record conversations myself would have been preferable conceptually, but that would result in a very narrow range selection of languages and situations. And what would the subject be? A self-centered portrait of me and my close environment?
One possible solution is to use a mix of a large number of less recognisable sources. Still no overall theme or conceptual content other than the diversity of language and expression, but actually if the main subject is the generality of language and music then this is perhaps how it has to be. The great diversity of human experience would be the overall concept.