In my last post I mentioned I’d been to see Jennifer Walshe’s performance of “ALL THE MANY PEOPLS”, and that the experience really deserved its own post… For various reasons I have been writing an awful lot this week, and the consequence of writing for hours each day, is that it seems to produce more writing! So on Sunday, I tried to form into words some impression of Walshe’s incredible composition, partly to try and convey to you why I thought this performance was amazing, and also to practice writing in more depth about sounds.
Writing about sounds can be a form of recording that is sometimes even more concentrated than pointing a microphone at something and listening… So here’s my review of “ALL THE MANY PEOPLS”. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed attending the concert.
My review of Jennifer Walshe’s amazing performance, “ALL THE MANY PEOPLS” or why you should see Jennifer Walshe live
Where composers of previous eras have rearranged the notes of the stave in different ways, adding in different timbres and dynamics, Jennifer Walshe rearranges matter. Filtering data from the online world and parsing it through an intelligent and sensitive sonic logic, her solo composition “ALL THE MANY PEOPLS” is utterly contemporary. It draws on cultural sources that didn’t exist twenty years ago, and offers a critical reading of the mass and character of data assailing us each day in the information age. “ALL THE MANY PEOPLS” questions the effects of the texts and images freely available online, and provides a brilliant reflection on the cultural landscape of the internet that we are collectively consuming and producing. Crucially, Walshe’s sonic focus helps us to hear life in the digital age, and on some level, then, to listen to ourselves.
“ALL THE MANY PEOPLS” uses text sourced from Amazon.com message boards about vampire physiology, conspiracy theorist Francis E. Dec, the Courage Wolf meme, 4Chan and Google Autocomplete. Words taken from these disparate sources are organised like sonic bricolage, each phrase being lent its own accent, cadence, and character. Moving nimbly between speed and pitch, and punctuating her hybridised language with non-verbal sounds, Walshe invokes an impression of listening to the Internet at high speed.
These text-based sounds and vocalisations are combined with recorded sounds, from such sources as satellites, sferics and interstellar sonic phenomena; sounds taken from mobile phone videos made by U.S. and British soldiers blowing things up on YouTube; detritus from video game voice-overs and field recordings made in Ireland and New York. The interplay between these found sounds and Jennifer Walshe’s vocal is unsettlingly beautiful and strange; a fractured montage filled with exquisite details. One section mixes tiny, almost imperceptible vocalisations with what sounds like a recording of hot charcoal smouldering, with perhaps some wind in a chimney. The boundaries between the live and recorded sounds blur; listening to the interplay of weather and breath, it becomes impossible to distinguish where one ends and the other begins.
As well as found sounds and texts, “ALL THE MANY PEOPLS” also uses found footage; there is something disturbing about some of this imagery, perhaps the knowledge that – like the words discovered on Amazon.com and the videos of soldiers blowing stuff up on mobile phone videos – this stuff emanates from our culture, and evidences the real thoughts, words, worries, behaviours, neuroses, science and advertisements produced by Western civilisation. Like the words left on message boards in passing by strangers, and the casual uploads to YouTube scattered throughout “ALL THE MANY PEOPLS”, this footage feels discarded. However Walshe assembles this orphaned material, and rearranges it into something shapely and memorable, redeeming it from obscurity. The shaky handheld footage of parachutes blooming in the sky like irises takes on a poetic coherence beside Walshe’s clear descending vocal; the sounds of voices uttering something a lot like the word “please” un-mutes the silent figures in the films from mental health institutions; and the fabulous middle-aged woman with her amazing hats becomes a sort of triumphant leitmotif, wandering in and out of the frame.
The title of the work is vaguely reminiscent of The Beatles’ “All the Lonely People”. However where that pop song delivers a trite collection of vignettes pertaining to isolation and madness, and wonders bleakly “where all the lonely people come from”, Walshe’s “ALL THE MANY PEOPLS” are not conveyed with pity. If there is an Eleanor Rigby in “ALL THE MANY PEOPLS” then she is organising the rice from the church floor into irreligious sculptures, or plotting an evil genius masterplan. The contemporary, all-caps, LOL-speak “PEOPLS” Walshe has amassed are not “lonely” but “many”. Combed from the internet and consolidated through the focus of Walshe, the voices remaking the Courage Wolf meme and arguing online about vampire physiology feel less like the lost or the damned, and more like a vast, exciting force of ungovernable creativity.
There’s an implicit feminism at work in the use of references, too; when Walshe mimes flinging grenades into the audience, it feels like a criticism of violence – an aping of its crass ubiquity in popular culture – but the gesture also reads as a jubilant reclamation of what is traditionally thought of as “boystuff.” Ditto the preoccupations with space travel, science fiction, gore, blood, conspiracy theories, etc.
Reminiscent of Bladerunner or Metropolis in its interrogation of technology, questions around what it means to be human are being asked here. But where those earlier works were underpinned by menace and terror, and where humanity was constantly under threat from “the machine”, the human beings in Walshe’s treatise on the information age remain resourceful and resilient. Plotting an extraordinary course through her adventures online, Walshe evokes the figure of a great explorer, traversing new territories of meaning at the edge of what is known. In a form of space-age ethnography, her work celebrates and uncovers the new languages and sonic strata of our online interactions and shares them hopefully and humorously through performance.
Though there’s something faintly robotic in the precision and concentration of Walshe’s stage persona, and though certain segments of text evoke the droid-like voice of the automaton or the fembot, “ALL THE MANY PEOPLS” always strays back to something wildly and triumphantly human. Walshe’s soundworld is an exciting organic wilderness of dark cackling, soft whinnying, and precious vulnerability. But this is a wildness that’s online, that’s down with its memes and its social networks, and that’s watching YouTube. “ALL THE MANY PEOPLS” recognises that what lies behind all our online interactions and all our technological inventions remains stubbornly raw and animal, with guts. Though it warns of the claws, it’s also a reminder of the amazing things that we can make, out here at the edge of hyperspace.
image © Jennifer Walshe and used here with her kind permission