by Jacki Apple
A number of audio artists use sonic space as
a performance space, as the white room or black box in which an event
is staged, or as the specific location of an activity. The most important
characteristic this type of art is its dimensionality, its compositional
and sculptural use of space. Sound creates the mise en scene for the
action of the text, or functions as the "text." It describes
and defines the physical environment in lime and space. Thus the language
used to depict the formal aspects of visual and performance art applies
as equally to aural representation as the more apparent critical language
of music and literature. Audio art is interdisciplinary performance
in a different perceptual realm.
In Terra dell'Immaginazione
the listener journeys with sound composer Helen Thorington through riverside
caverns in Matera, Italy. But this piece is not mere aural reportage
of location ambiance. It is an invention, a brilliant orchestration
of sonic material that transports us into that place and moves us through
it as a film would. Without a single word. it tells a story of passage
through an earthly underworld that is familiar yet alien, dark and deep
The surrounding water ripples melodically with the motion of the paddle,
echoing down tunnels teeming with a symphony of life that flies. crawls,
scampers, swoops, and swims, hums, buzzes, and chatters just beyond
the range of the darting beam of a flashlight. Near and far, these presences
are in constant motion as she approaches and passes, going deeper into
the caves. Presented both as an installation and a broadcast work, this piece rouses
primal terrors and wonders from the unconscious, while evoking the sensuous
physicality, danger and beauty of the natural world. And a feeling of
relief and regret on return to the city.
In What is the Matter in Amy Glennon?,
writer/performer Sheila Davies gives shape and dimension to such abstract
questions as the nature of existence. The thesis is the relationship
between matter and consciousness. The dialectic is between science and
philosophy. The problem is the synthesis of spirit and body. Davies
explores these ideas in poetic language which she situates in three
dimensional concrete space. The formal structure of the work translates
into a model of its content, as language transforms thought into matter,
ideas into objects.
Davies constructs and intercuts three parallel narratives, two of which
inhabit distinctly different places while the third traverses them both
as it travels through time and space. Each has a different vocal rhythm.
Amy's voice (Davies) is melodic, girlish and out of body. In search
of herself, Amv plunges through the rabbithole of her own existence
and flows the path of the White Rabbit in the guise of the Fathers of
Science. They define existence in terms of waves and particles while
she "questions the legends of her own species."
Amy is accompanied on her trek across the historical landscape by an
a cappella chorus singing phrases from her observations. They function
as signposts pointing the way. Behind her, in the temporal field of
memory is the nighttime hum of crickets in the country, a train whistle,
fragments of music, an owl hooting, all of which simulate place like
slide projections of old snapshots.
Meanwhile in another zone. a resonant baritone, reverberating through
waves of deep space, repeatedly appears and disappears, describing the
circumstances of Amy's entrance into the world"She was born
on a long night...in the light of the sickle moon...she entered the
world feet first."
As in Terra,
this is a story of passage through the underworld towards the light
of wisdom. Like the Surrealists. Davies draws upon mythology, psychology
and the world of dreams. Amy descends a spiral staircase into her own
bitterness, meets the primordial serpent who she shoots through the
mouth with her proverbial harpoon and out climbs her philosophical bridegroom.
This tale and Amy's progression are facilitated by lots of words put
up piece by piece for auction. In a crowded room full of prospective
buyers, the percussive cadences of the auctioneer call for bids on the
dimensions of the stairs, giving Amy a staircase to descend; then comes
literature providing the serpent, with bidding among Freud, Djuna Barnes,
C.G. Jung. Sold to the latter! At the pound of the gavel the word-objects
are assembled into a text that orders the structure of Amy's existence.
The story itself is put up for fierce bidding between Cartesian and
Quantum, and "sold to the young woman holding ajar of lizards."
The train whistle disappears into the night, as Amy "goes running
with an apple in each hand."
As an audio artwork commissioned for radio, What
is the Matter in Amy Glennon? contains
all the disjunctive multimedia juxtapositions and non-linear narrative
devices characteristic of postmodern performance. It makes no pretense
to naturalism. Radio space is employed as an architectural performance
space which Davies has transformed with text and sound also operating
as movement and projected images. As an aural work the result is comparable
to the way Rachel Rosenthal uses these performance elements in the visual
Though Thorington also uses sonic space architecturally as installation
and performance site, in Terra dell 'Immaginazione
she has created the illusion of a "natural" environment in
real time. placing the audience in the position of participating performer.
Both pieces explore the phenomenology of perception. Although visual
and sonic information occupy the same spatial Held each has its own
discrete characteristics which are not translatable from one perceptual
mode to the other. Thus aural performance works must he recognized on
their own terms.
by Helen Thorington was commissioned by RAI RadioUno, Italy, and is
program #40 in the 1990 New American Radio series broadcast on local
public radio stations.
What is the Matter
in Amy Glennon? by Sheila Davies was commissioned by New
American Radio, 1989.