PARTICIPATORY SPORT FOR CRAFT ARTISTS
English Translation from Prodiemus Magazine (Spain)
Special Issue 2011 “SOUNDSCAPES” -- Pages 27 through 36
A WORLD OF SOUNDS
By Marta Orts Alis
PhD of Philosophy and Education Sciences, Teaching Degree in Piano and Music Theory, High School Professor of Music
In this article for Prodiemus Magazine, our intent is to familiarize the reader with the work of a North American musician who starts with sounds from his immediate environment and uses them to generate new sonorities that, when combined, create a world of distinct sounds that allows us to approach his personal reality.
R. WEIS, COMPOSER OF SOUND ART
“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we ﬁnd it fascinating. (…) There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear.” -- John Cage
I will tell you that little by little, but in a constant and continuing way, the music of Robert Weis (USA, 1958), a composer whose work can be heard in galleries and contemporary art museums, will wrap you in an invisible shape until you are caught in a cloud of sound.
Upon first listen, of least importance is the origin of the sounds, because when the music invades you, the conscious mind becomes held in a type of lethargy (almost in a trance) allowing the subconscious mind to dominate. Then, the body becomes light and everything around you fades and loses presence; you exist alone in the “now,” and in a moment it is “yesterday” and “tomorrow.” It produces a fusion of dimensions of space, both near and far.
This is not a strange phenomenon, no. This is all the fruit of resonance that results from the mixing and devising of a personalized set of timbres which are part of a tangible reality that, thanks to the manipulation and mixing of sounds from our environment, loses its original significance, revealing to us another world, another reality. It produces a strange effect: even with one’s eyes open, it allows us to see within ourselves, diving into the pages of our memories, without nostalgia, and in turn, it makes us enter the moments of life – but without longing for what has been lived. The present invades us.
R. Weis works the raw material of music (sound) in its pure state.
Afterward, when one has finished the first listen, the conscious mind (curious for realism), begins to distinguish rhythmic patterns, formalities, timbres… and the mind discovers familiar elements of a plot that one had first perceived as totally alien from the everyday and known. In this second phase, intellectual enjoyment allows one to approximate the task of the composer, his work – meticulous and thorough – as a craftsman, because he knows the sounds and tools of his work; as an investigator, because he reveals new timbral possibilities in the sound of elements from the environment and gives them a musical category previously unknown to us; as a communicator, for transmitting and sharing a way of seeing and feeling the world around him; as an artist, because he combines and manipulates the power of sounds to create compositions that are pleasing to the ear. And, although at first his sonorities seem strange and alien to our reality, in the end we recognize them as part of our world.
To see reality from another perspective – as Weis does – is a way to discover another side to sounds, to get to know them, the ones that we ignore or, conversely, despise because they annoy us.
Weis works the raw material of music (sound) in its pure state, without any pejorative valuation beforehand, in a kind of vindication of the artistic possibilities of noise, because acoustic exploration is fundamental to his work.
For those not yet familiar with Robert Weis, we will take a look at his artistic career, and see through his own words, how he composes, and his intentions.
Composer of Sound Art
Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania, USA), 1958
Photo: “R. Weis,” by Arthur Tress
1982 The Poetry Project
R. Weis begins his creative career in 1982 in New York City. His first artistic-musical expressions were poetic monologues that were presented at La Mama Experimental Theatre and on WBAI FM Pacifica Radio.
At first, Weis experimented with the manipulation of pre-recorded sounds on cassette tape and began combining them into sound collages that were introduced in conjunction with the spoken word. In time, his attention became focused on the composition of manipulated sounds.
Begins working on a sampler and makes compositions using samples of original sounds. Here also begins a series of collaborations with other artists that serves to introduce him to the wider creative world, and he composes music for film, visual art, and dance. These collaborations were presented at different New York venues such as Performance Space 122, Danspace Project, or the gallery Art et Industrie.
Mystery of the Egg (1991-1994)
Mystery of the Egg has been heard on experimental radio programs in both the USA and Europe.
Composition for choreography by Jaime Ortega, Performance Space 122 (New York, March 18-21, 1993).
1994 Requiem for a Paperweight
In New York City, Weis meets photographer Arthur Tress (www.arthurtress.com) and together they prepare the installation Requiem for a Paperweight. Weis remembers how Tress “created all the photographs with a simple click. The photographs are glistening plays on light, scarves, mirrors, glassware, figurines, etc., which he arranged on a table in his apartment. The photographs were not manipulated nor are they multiple exposures.”
In the composition for the exhibition, Weis used 80 samples of manipulated sound, from giggles of children (the composer’s nephews) to snippets of conversation playing off the photographs of Arthur Tress, as well as sounds of objects like telephone or fax.
“Requiem” was presented at University Art Museum, California State University Long Beach. Since then it has been presented at Bridgewater/Lustberg Gallery and the CMJ Music Marathon (New York City) as well as in German museums including the Ludwig Forum – Stadt Aachen. This composition has also been heard as part of “Arthur Tress: Fantastic Voyage, Photographs 1956-2000” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, DC).
According to a review in ArtNews (1995):
Requiem is "...a richly textured, haunting vision of life in the future...a dazzling morality play, its hero, the Everyman of late-20th-century corporate life. A stereotypically overworked, anonymous cog in the Japanese business machine, the protagonist exists in a high-tech, migraine-inducing netherworld of garish neon color, charts and lab equipment, glossy ads, and business statistics. Haunted by shadowy memories of family and childhood and elusive promises of health and happiness, he faces a future in which bankruptcy, unemployment, and forced retirement are the preludes to his own cosmic apotheosis in death. His desperate search for meaning is met only with shiny, deceptive dreams.
"Enhanced by the score of composer R. Weis, who works with language and manipulated sound, the installation format works brilliantly for Tress. The dark-painted walls and vivid light reinforce the impression that we are witnessing, as in a medieval chapel, a kind of contemporary morality play."
noitatu MovE oveR (2001-2004)
After living 16 years in New York City, Weis moved to the California desert where for three years he works on a new composition: noitatu MovE oveR. The 19-minute composition is a type of meditation on the structures of the universe. It was created with only six original samples: four to represent adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine, the four base components of DNA, 1 sample to represent whole numbers, and one to represent prime numbers. The composition is arranged like the DNA double helix.
In 2003, Weis accepted an invitation from The Savannah College of Art & Design to compose a song for the exhibition “Pour l’Amour des Chiens” (Mona Bismarck Foundation, Paris, July and August 2003). Dog Choir is the result. For this occasion, Weis uses natural sounds: wheezing and barking of puppies and adult dogs.
Moving back to Pittsburgh, his city of birth, R. Weis begins sampling sounds produced by wood, like creaks and slams of doors in the 19th century Victorian house where he actually lives. And so, he composes Victoriana.
It is a composition of minimalist character springing from four samples totaling 15 seconds with which Weis composes a work one hour in duration heard at the exhibition Gestures 12 (Mattress Factory Art Museum, Pittsburgh, May and June 2009).
Excitable Audible (2009-2011)
R. Weis considers our surroundings to be filled with fantastic sounds that we ignore, and his most recent work challenges the listener to identify sounds very close to us: from kitchen dishes (lids of plastic and glass, plates, bowls of steel and ceramic) and cardboard being thrown into the trash can, to toys and voice. Included too are bounces of his dog’s ball used as base sound material. What’s more, he includes specific sounds like the ring of a Tibetan singing bowl or the buzz from the lights in his studio.
Works of R. Weis in Detail
“There is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes sound.” -- John Cage
Although Weis’ house was built in 1891, near the end of the epoch for which the composition is named, Victoriana (2006-2008) by R. Weis can be considered homage to this period in the Anglo-Saxon world.
The wooden floors and old doors and windows were his source of inspiration. Starting with the sampling and later treatment of real sounds, R. Weis composes Victoriana, a composition of more than one hour in duration. Starting with a rhythmic sequence of four sounds with high sounds trickling in, he generates a rhythmic momentum that constantly maintains a come-and-go similar to the opening and closing of doors, of hardware that creaks like ascending and descending glissandos. Without losing a beat, it is this almost ostinato rhythm that is precisely what gives the work its unity. Victoriana is organized in separate, clearly identifiable parts that proceed without interruption.
It seems to us that Victoriana by R. Weis has much in common with Variations for a Door and a Sigh (1963) by Pierre Henry (born 1927). In the same way Henry affirms that “the door itself can become a musical instrument to be played like any other instrument… it plays arpeggios, scales, tremolos,” Weis composes a work where the old doors of his Victorian house were the “Divas” of his composition stating that “Victoriana is made with four samples of four doors.” Without a doubt, two unique compositions in their language and timbre, in which the interpreter’s role is diluted and the work itself takes center stage.
An Epoch That Marked a Style
The Victorian period began in 1837 and ended in 1901. Its name refers to Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and corresponds to her reign. During this prosperous period, when industrialization is on the rise, England expands into the east and colonizes India. In time, a large English population immigrates to North America.
The Victorian style made its mark as much on domestic architectural construction as on household furniture and furnishings. It is characterized by the conjunction of elements from previous styles in an aesthetic amalgam that is less a synthesis and more like a juxtaposition. Among others, these following styles were found: classical or Italianate, with symmetrical facades featuring pediments and cornices; romantic; gothic; second Empire, with the usual urban construction of row houses; Queen Anne style, in Norman fashion, with multiple rooflines, etc.
Continuing the Anglo-Saxon tradition, the typical Victorian house is wood, although after 1850 we also find brick construction instead of walls finished with stucco. It has two floors and an attic, and is recognized for its details, like the porch with wooden balustrade and stained glass windows on some of its exterior openings from where one can enjoy views of the garden; in its interiors, grand staircases, warm fireplaces and walls that, even in the bathrooms, are wrapped with baseboards and wallpaper of floral prints or vertical stripes repeated in the upholstery, bedspreads and rugs.
Variations for a Door and a Sigh
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
We find an antecedent to R. Weis’ projects in works such as Variations for a Door and a Sigh (1963) by Pierre Henry, a musique concrete work forty-five minutes in duration.
It is structured in twenty-five variations made from the transformation of two original sounds: a squeaky door and the two beats of a sigh (inhaling and exhaling).
Conceptually, I will tell you that it’s a cyclical work that evokes the rhythms of day or life itself in a metaphor for existence via of one of the most common gestures of human expression (entering or exiting a room) though, on the other hand, complex, since it implies a particular attitude toward life: opening versus resistance to the unknown, resilience to overcome past experiences versus the capacity to adapt oneself to the future. All of this through an object in daily use: a door.
The composition was used in one of the ballet productions choreographed by Maurice Bejart (1927-2007) in which seven ballerinas improvise from sixteen of the twenty-five variations in an order determined at random before the presentation begins. The ballet alludes to the theatre of the absurd with distress present throughout the staging.
Excitable Audible (2011)
The songs on R. Weis’ new disc were created with 19 samples. Some, such as those in Casserole & Singing Bowl, are used in two or three distinct variations in different songs on the CD.
A Timbral Point
This Tape is Trash. The song is composed from two short samples: Weis’ own voice singing a four-note phrase, and the sound of trash when it is thrown and hits the trashcan.
Casserole & Singing Bowl. Composition created from three samples: a porcelain casserole, a plastic bottle being played like a flute and a Tibetan singing bowl. This work, more abstract fare, seems to be like ocean waves since it was created from the superimposition of multiple sounds.
To hear clips from the CD’s songs, or to purchase some or the entire disc: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/rweis2. To hear three of Weis’ new songs, visit: Crafthaus
Whereas in Victoriana, the “divas” of the composition were squeaking doors in R. Weis’ house, in the case of Excitable Audible they are his kitchen utensils. Photo credit: R. Weis
R. Weis Close-Up
By Marta Orts
“Each sound is unique ... Keeping one's mind on the emptiness, on the space, and can see anything can be in it, is, as a matter of fact, in it.” -- John Cage
What is most important to you in the making of your type of music: musical know-how, acoustics, or the informative?
For me, the most important is the acoustic. In my work, I always listen to insignificant sounds in order to find music within them. There are melodies within sounds we generally do not hear and when I compose with these sounds at different levels (more rapid/slow, more sharp/serious than they are heard in their natural state, etc.) I try to explore these details and construct an interesting composition of good musical quality.
“I listen to insignificant sounds in order to find music within them.”
The understanding of technology is the least important, since the entire process of composition is an exploration in mixing of sounds.
What tools do you use?
I use my hands, my voice and insignificant things from daily life that I record with a microphone connected to a computer using some specific programs such as MachFive which converts the sounds and places them on a musical keyboard for replay. With each touch of a key I can make different tones from the same group of sounds… faster on one hand, slower on the other. This program also allows me to change the volume of the sounds so that we can hear them with greater intensity than in reality.
I also use a program called Digital Performer that records everything I do on the keyboard. It’s like a typewriter; it simply records what I do and then repeats it.
What resources do you use to manipulate the sounds?
I always manipulate the sounds with effects such as reverb that are provided by MachFive. However the majority of the manipulations are done by hand, simultaneously playing keys on the keyboard in a way that creates completely new combinations. For example, on my new CD, Excitable Audible, I use my voice singing an improvised group of five notes. When they are heard rapidly and slowly at the same time, the tones construct something completely different from the original recording.
Do you write a score or musical notation before composing your songs or compositions?
I never know how the work will turn out until it’s finished. When I begin, the composition is a blank slate that I get to know by living with the sounds to see what can be done with them. After much work I am ready to begin the project.
I feel the work is finished only when it holds my interest, from start to finish. Normally it takes two or three years to compose a project like the new CD.
How do you start when you begin a composition? Isolated sounds, a soundscape, a rhythm, a form or musical structure?
When I begin I never know what is contained in the sounds. At times, a sound recorded through the microphone might seem to only be rhythm, but when manipulated more slowly or more rapidly, more sharply or seriously, etc., a new sound wave appears. This exploration is fundamental to my work.
“I feel the work is finished only when it holds my interest, from start to finish.”
When you make a CD, what gives it unity, the sounds used, sounds of the same type or from the same place, or some other thing?
Each project is different. Before this new CD, the most recent project is Victoriana; it was based exclusively on four sounds in my old house. On Excitable Audible I simply wanted to play with inconsequential sounds like kitchen dishes, trash, plastic, etc.
What opinion do you think is deserved for composers such as Maurice Martenot, Pierre Schaeffer or Murray Schafer who have made music without conventional instruments?
I have a high opinion of all of them, for their having made music without using typical instruments. Also true of John Cage.
What do you think of “soundscape” to which Murray Schafer refers in his publications?
In English, “soundscape” means something without form, something ambient like the wind or waves. I try to make something with more structure, similar to traditional music.
Which composers have influenced you?
The minimalist composer Terry Riley is a genius, and although his works are music in the conventional sense, I like them very much.
It is important to understand that I am not educated as a musician. I was trained as a writer and my work proceeds from the vocabulary of musicians like Laurie Anderson, even though her work with music and poetry incorporates conventional instruments. I also like traditional music of indigenous cultures. Much of this type of work can seem very strange, but that inspires me.
I also like Rock music, especially the music of Siouxsie Sioux and her collaborator Budgie in the group The Creatures; their music is very experimental.
What musical classification fits your work?
My work is classified as “sound art.”
For some, in order for a composition to be considered music it must have rhythm, melody, timbre and form. Do your works have all these elements?
I hope so! I always try to compose with rhythm, melody, timbre and form, but by using sounds instead of typical instruments in the common method of a musical composer.
Can you say which type of sounds you like the most: mechanical, electrical, natural, animal or human?
I like and have used all these sounds, mechanical and electrical, natural (water and wind), animals (birds and dogs), and humans, with my own voice.
The most important thing is the sounds themselves, and I never know where they will lead.
What would be (or is) your ideal sound score?
My ideal sound score is a composition that people hear as music, without realizing it is made from sounds and not with instruments. //Marta Orts Alis, 2011.
CAGE, J. (2002): Silencio, Madrid, Agora.
Conversation between Robert Weis and Marta Orts, between May 17, 2011 and June 6, 2011 via emails.
KAZALIA, M. (2011): “Pittsburgh: R. Weis, compositions of manipulated sound.” North America, 2/13/11. http://vasa-project.com/blog/2011/02/pittsburgh-r-weiss-composition...
LEVINE, Marty. “Pittsburgh’s Gateway to the Arts Goes High Tech.” KeystoneEdge. 9/23/2010. http://www.keystoneedge.com/features/gatewaytothearts0923.aspx
WEIS, R. (composer’s website) http://www.rweis.com
“Victorian Style Houses: One Style, Many Variations.” Proyecto y obra. http://www.proyectoyobra.com/arqvictoriana.asp
“Life in a Victorian House.” Ovejas electricas. 8/18/2007. http://www.ovejaselectricas.es/?p=111.
ORTS, M. "Delusion." Musicarts.cat, 06/03/2011. http://www.musicarts.cat/?p=362
R. Weis’ Musical Influences
John Cage (USA, 1912-1992). Composer, electronic and random music pioneer. His ideas were influenced by Eastern cultures, especially by the philosophies of India and Zen Buddhism.
Terry Riley (USA, 1935). North American minimalist composer, that although trained following classical technique, was interested in the compositional resources of John Cage, by improvisation, by jazz and by Hindu music, as much as by the possibilities of technical resources, founder of the San Francisco Center for Electronic Music.
Official page: http:///terryriley.net/
Laurie Anderson (USA 1947). Multifaceted artist, violinist, singer, poet and rhapsodist, photographer, cartoonist… Official page: http:///www.laurieanderson.com/
Siouxsie Sioux, pseudonym of Susan Janet Ballion (England, 1957) member of the British group The Creatures (1981-2005). Official page: http://www.siouxsie.com/