Gentle Fire

Gentle Fire is a bit of an obsession for me; it is an Alvin Lucier score which I have written about before, and what fascinates me is its imaginative, material treatment of sound. I find it really interesting that realising any version of the score involves collecting sounds from life – a process which me and my Edirol are constantly engaged in – and extending thoughts about sound to an exploration of which sounds we consider to be ‘beautiful’ and which sounds we consider to be ‘difficult.’ Gentle Fire is, for me, set apart from other experimental music scores in both its accessibility, and in its suggestive and imaginative qualities. The score itself has a sort of speculative quality, whereby just reading it and speculating on sounds as a result, does something to one’s perception of sound.

The score is entirely text-based; there is no musical notation, instead there is a series of instructions, which I have been endeavouring to follow for two and a half years now;

Collect, on tape, examples of ambient sound events such as those made by

Screeching Brakes, Chattering Guests, Warring Gangs, Rioting Prisoners, Stalling Motors etc.

Using an electronic music synthesiser or any equivalent configuration of electronic components, process the examples in such a way that they become transformed into what could be perceived as sound events of different origin such as those made by

Ocean Waves, Wind in Trees, Flowing Streams, Boiling Tea, Cooing Doves etc.

For example, Snarling Dogs become Crunching Snow; Crashing Planes, Laughing Girls; and Manoeuvring Tanks, Ocean Waves.

Record these transformations…in any sequence or any number of channels, using any manner of mixing, overlapping…taking care only that the process of change from each original sound event to its final state of transformation is slowly, gradually and clearly heard…

-    excerpt from the prose score, Gentle Fire, by Alvin Lucier

I won’t reproduce the entire score here, but the lists of sounds featured in the score are highly evocative and raise many questions about the boundaries between imagination, listening, and sonic phenomena. Many of the sounds that one is instructed to gather would be very difficult to collect, and the resulting recordings may not in any way accurately reflect what the source is. One of the sounds in the first list, for instance, is Spurting Blood. I do not know what Spurting Blood would sound like but it is unlikely that I would be recording it is I were in the presence of it, and I am uncertain as to what could actually be heard in this instance.

Yoko Ono once wrote an instruction that we should listen to the Earth turning, and though this is a sound that is impossible to physically hear with our natural hearing, we are able still to imagine this sound and this listening experience in the same way that we are able to picture places in our minds when we close our eyes or when we dream. And maybe this associative, imaginative way of dealing with sounds is part of the lure of Gentle Fire, and part of what sets it apart from other scores. I love that in Gentle Fire, sound is not treated as a formal element, but rather as a living substance that can cross over between the mind, the ears, the imagination, the dream, and real, lived experiences.

I like that the ultimate aim of the piece is to learn to synthesise sounds imaginatively, in ones’ own mind;

…design for your personal use and store in your mind an imaginary synthesiser with which… you can wilfully bring about such transformations at any time in any place without the help of external equipment.

However in order to understand Gentle Fire more as a work, an idea or a philosophy, I have been figuring out since my presentation last year at the Sound Diaries Conference, how I might stage or perform the score to an audience, and how my ideas about sound may be conveyed to others through this process.

I was totally uncertain about how this may be achieved until I attended the excellent Found Sound Stories weekend workshop at South Hill Park’s Digital Media Centre last October. Organised by Martin Franklin and featuring composer/artist/maker Janek Schaefer, the workshop involved my getting to grips with a mixing desk and learning how to mix sounds together live and in sequence. Janek Schaefer’s characteristic enthusiasm and playfulness coupled with the energy of being in a room full of sound enthusiasts and gadgets gave me the confidence to be more relaxed and intuitive when working with sounds and to treat it as a kind of collage material. I most enjoyed mixing up Meredith Monk’s singing with the recordings I made at the Wolf Conservation trust, plus a recording I have of the old plumbing ‘singing’ in Rachael’s lake-district residence. You can hear much of what I mixed up at that weekend workshop along with the mixes that other participants made here (as part of the Framework radio broadcast) and here (as part of the Gene Pool podcast series.) Both shows were edited together by Martin Franklin, and reflect the joyous way that everyone who attended the workshop got to grips with mixers, records, delay pedals and so on.

Mixing and listening at the Found Sound Stories workshop at South Hill Park’s Digital Media Centre

I came away from that workshop enormously enthused by the physicality of live mixing, and how I could utilise this to ‘mix’ the sounds from Gentle Fire into some kind of performance. I immediately set about thinking about how I could transform the sounds from the first list to sound like sounds from the second list, and I realised quickly that I only wanted to have a couple of transitions, and that each ‘change’ ought to be heard in the mix, so that the progression could be experienced by the audience at this year’s Sonic Art Oxford.

I generally like to use sounds as they are and so I found processing them to make them sound like something else to be the hardest part of realising my version of Gentle Fire. Not only is it a counter-intuitive process for me, but it is also something I have little experience of doing. Still, with time-stretching, echo, pitch-changing and reverb effects I was able to make some believable representations of certain sounds.

I had half an hour for my performance and I wanted the audience to have access to the words of the score. So I printed out the sounds I used in the eventual performance and I also set up a video camera so that people present could see the labels on my CDs, thus setting up expectations and the anticipation for certain sounds.

This image was projected onto a very large muslin sheet, and all my fiddling with 3 CD players and changing of CDs was seen as a manual and physical side of the mixing task. I wanted the eventual result to resemble cooking or some other physical demonstration; to enhance the idea that sounds are substantive or material and that we can have an imaginative relationship to them as we do to food or fabric or colour. I also wanted there to be a correlation between the bodily process of collecting sounds in my actual life, and the physical or manual task of reordering them in a performance context.

The hands that collect and mix the sounds…

The collecting process has become an important and ongoing aspect of the project, as integral to Gentle Fire as the performance you are going to hear today. The first part of Lucier’s score is being realised through an ongoing process of listening and recording in everyday life. Recordings garnered in this way are not always pristine; they bear traces of physical movement and circumstantial imperfections – wind, the banging of a distant door, the interference caused by snowflakes landing on microphones – as the artist moves through life digitally gathering and listening to sounds.

But this raw, real-life quality of sound is to be intentionally retained throughout today’s performance where the emphasis is on the physicality of sound. Sounds have been prepared for this performance from the raw materials of the collection, and like substances lined up for a cookery demonstration, they will be presented sequentially so that you can consider for yourself their imaginative and sonorous properties.

Trying to change one sound into another is a process that makes us think about surface quality and texture, space and duration. To make Droning Turbines sound like Sounding Dolphins is not easy, and so far methods for collecting such sounds as Frowning Clowns and Spurting Blood have proved elusive. However, hopefully trying to change sounds in this way, searching for rare or potentially inaudible sounds, or even imagining what such sources would sound like, expands our ideas of what the mind’s ear is capable of.

– programme notes, © Felicity Ford

There were a few things I was unhappy about with the final performance; I couldn’t see the CD player displays easily in the dark and so it was difficult to keep track of which sound was playing through which channel; this made it difficult to convincingly move through different levels of process to take one sound into another at times and is a lesson to me to rehearse in the dark in the future, if my performance is going to take place in the dark. However I am pleased that this piece is now an entity; a thing I can perform anywhere with a score and a set of distinct and carefully ordered sounds. I shall continue to develop Gentle Fire and am going to be putting together a radio show for Framework using the source sounds, as a kind of sketch for future realisations of this amazing piece by Lucier.

Feedback I got on the day was that many of the sounds were amazing/enjoyable and that people enjoyed the experience of moving through so many different sounds in a concert situation. The pigs that I recorded at Mudchute Farm a couple of weeks ago were especially appreciated by the audience, but I wish I had managed to more successfully blend them with the chuffing trains of Didcot!

Tim Hand very kindly took some photos for me of the performance and also recorded it for me so that you can download it here yourselves and take a listen; I am very keen to find out what other people think about Gentle Fire and my realisation of it so any or all of your thoughts are welcome.

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