Features | Jericho

Jericho / III :: The Conch Shell

By Joel Elliott | 13 October 2011

If I could live in a photograph, it would be this one. A skinny, freckled girl, in that ambiguous phase between adolescence and adulthood, red hair draping over her shoulders, standing on what appears to be a beach, in Nice, France. Eyes closed, head cocked to one side, gripping a conch shell to her ear with both hands. Photographs are silent, but this one is rich with the suggestion of sound. If we can follow that childhood leap of faith which says the ocean can be heard through a seashell no matter where you are—and why not, if the ocean carved the resonating space which “creates” the sound as much as the wind which “plays” it—then we can summon the will to imagine what she might be hearing.

The girl is French composer Eliane Radigue. Shortly after the photograph was taken, she came under the tutelage of Pierre Schaeffer, though in the end her music would prove to be a radical break even from his work. If Schaeffer’s musique concrète focuses primarily on what is external and solid, Radigue’s work is predominately concerned with what is internal and abstract. It is perhaps ironic that the former’s “naturally” occurring sounds (if more concerned with technology than nature itself) seem ultimately less human than Radigue’s synthesized sounds (for decades she relied almost solely on an Arp synthesizer and tape), her music marking a juncture where technology looks backward to an almost pre-musical language, one that still continues to this day.

Over half a century later, and Radigue, now 79, has magnified the conch shell into a concert space and the wind into a series of electronic pieces that produce a full-body effect even when played on headphones. The disruption of conventional notions of how live music should be consumed—conventions that persisted well into the avant-garde era of the 20th century—was among the most radical shifts in the history of music. Radigue calls it “anti-acoustics”: she told Frieze magazine “what we’re trying to do is to surround the audience with a sound, so that when you turn your head you hear something different.” Classic acoustics imagines an ideal audience member somewhere in the middle of the venue with minimal disruptions in sound quality as you move towards the periphery. Radigue subverted this formula and encouraged audience members to move around the space, finding different resonances and colouration depending on where they were in relation to the source(s).

The natural extension of this movement is where the space functions more as an instrument than the sound source. During Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, New Adventures in Sound Art (NAISA) sponsored an installation that epitomized this approach. Zack Settel and Mike Wozniewski’s Audio Graffiti imagines a wall (in this case, a curtain) that can be “tagged” with sound using an iPhone app. Moving around the space with wireless headphones produces a form of reception more related to the visual field than the aural one: when right in front of the wall you hear only the tags left there, but when backing up, the sound gradually pans out to the entire wall.

While a skeletal rhythm is mapped out beforehand to theoretically provide some order, chaos tends to prevail. Tags are left in secret, and without the immediate framework of the rest of the “wall” to guide them, they merge with the other tags in unexpected ways, gradually fading out over time. Early in the evening, when local families with young children came down for the kid-friendly exhibitions featured at Artscape Wychwood Barns, may have been the most unruly time of the night, but also the most disinhibited. Two young girls (one possibly named Sophie) leave competing tags next to each other: “Sophie is crazy” and “Sophie is awesome,” tagged at separate times, but looped so they at times seem to interrupt each other, at other times echo each other. An accidental discovery of dissonant counterpoint, conceptually and musically. Someone tries to say something intelligent, but it’s eventually drowned out in the cacophony, where profound gestures become ridiculous and vice-versa. I asked Settel how he doesn’t lose his mind over the course of the all-night event, and he said something to the effect of insanity being an early stage and everything after being something beyond insanity. Which is what, transcendence?

Perhaps the most novel of applications of this technology is for editing: “What I was doing essentially… [was] pulling back and making my own mix of the sound,” Settel tells me, comparing it to the less spatially-inclined method of mixing on a laptop. Throughout the night, he uses a visual, digital reconstruction of the space and moves around it, remixing the participants himself. This seems like a common move with interactive art in general: creating a platform that requires public input (often affectionately called “gaming,” which seems particularly appropriate for this piece), then using the output of that interaction as more raw material. The space is the instrument, then the voices are: the piece rarely ends with the user, the creator or the technology, but the three constantly feedback into each other.

I don’t get very far asking Wozniewski and Settel if there’s an intentionally subversive element to the piece, though at the very least there seems to be a populist one. Wozniewski says they’re planning on taking it out of the gallery: “As soon as you go out into the real world, and into the city and allow people to tag their city with sounds as well, I think you’ll have a lot of micro-cultural dialogues that will occur and people will claim various parts of the city with sound just like they do with real visual graffiti.” The city as an instrument is perhaps the one frontier left to achieve in interactive sound art.

The understanding of space as an instrument may not so much be a new idea, as an ancient one, recently re-discovered. Ten years ago, archaeologists from Stanford discovered conches at a 3,000-year old pre-Incan temple at Chavín de Huántar in Peru. Using an array of microphones and other audio equipment, acousticians studied how the conches would have effected auditory perception in various parts of the temple, concluding the structure served as a “set of connected, resonant chambers,” in some places creating the “disorienting impression of sounds coming from several different directions at once.”

The researchers have suggested that the conches may have served as a form of mind control—in conjunction with psychoactive drugs—via “sensory manipulation.” But it’s just as easy to see the conch as something more democratic, potentially involving everyone in a space. The sound of the conch is, on the surface, amateurish—like a trumpet warbling uncontrollably around a single note—but together, and in the right space, could conceivably resonate in a physical, almost extra-musical way. Radigue in her interview brings up the term “wolf tone”: “the best threshold of resonance,” which is peculiar to each instrument. I think of the conch in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies: a symbol of democracy and order. Perhaps its actual sound is more menacing and unpredictable, but like that conch, everyone can possess it, at least for a little while.