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ASBJØRN TILLER

Bergen, october 2012

As we are walking towards the old church of the cross, Korskirken in Bergen, to attend one of the performances of Lemurs project Critical Band; the weather first turns dark and then gloomy, with hard wind and rain. Not unexpectedly, in this part of the country at this time of the year, but it makes it even better to come into a warm and welcoming church. Inside the audience is seated in a traditional church concert manner, facing the stage set under the altar with its impressive and colourful stained glass window picturing the crucifixion. However, we soon realize the stage is not limited to this area but is set within the church room as a whole.

As is often the case in churches, the audience is quiet, respecting the norms and conventions of a religious site. Still with the general lighting on, there are just whispers and mumbling. I am sitting on a wooden pew listening to the architectural space of the church. Being a medieval church, this building is by no means soundproof. It is still possible to hear the ambient sounds from outside as they leak through the church walls. We are waiting for the concert to start and it is difficult to allocate the source of the sounds we are experiencing. They appear as continuous fluctuations of noise, probably emitting from the traffic in the wet streets of Bergen, in combination with the hard rain and wind, which we can still see through the stained glass window. The noise is filtered and changes pitch with the gusts of wind and the varying traffic patterns. The church and its architectural space seem transparent by means of the stained glass window, but also by the fact that we can hear sounds through its walls.

The concert starts without any spoken notice. The lights are dimmed and we sit in silence listening to the room and its inherent noises for a while.  Suddenly, we hear a short outburst of a clarinet, then another from a saxophone, then a flute. The sounds from the instruments are low in amplitude and distant, arising from different positions in the church. It is as if they emit from outside the building as well. We hear more and more short tones, and even some long and dwelling ones mixing in. They come from all around us, and after a while we see the musicians playing as they walk toward the stage. The term critical band is set in motion through the musicians masking of outdoor noises.

Critical Band is set up as a modular work both in terms of the auditory and visual aspects. Throughout the piece, the performers are organised in different spatial formations. The auditory dynamic aspects change through the different modules. Those that appear silent emphasize the space of the church whereas the louder crescendo sequences put more attention to the ensemble playing.
Through the different patterns and choreography of the musicians, we experience the same dynamic shifts. As the musicians are scattered around the church, we pay more attention to the spatial aspects of the site. When they are centred on stage, the musical aspects of the score come into focus. Through these different scenarios the piece highlights the traditional concert situation at some points, while at other points almost resembles a contemporary sound installation.

The use of everyday sounds as musical material has been a key aspect of modern music since Russolo’s Art as Noise Manifest (1913), and has been emphasized by numerous composers since.  The most prominent example of this is probably some of John Cage’s compositions, with their focus on silence and the inclusion of everyday sounds as part of the performance.

This reference seems relevant in our case. By including and emphasizing the environmental sounds of the church and its surroundings in Critical Band, Lemur makes the church itself a major ‘instrument’ or ‘musician’ in the piece.  The building provides a soundscape of its own that is set into play in different ways throughout Critical Bands many scenarios and modules.  Sometimes the soundscape of the church is highlighted, at other times the performed soundscape. Together, the two elements of environmental sounds and musical sound form the overall sound ‘landscape’ of the concert.

This way of treating the performance space can be considered a cornerstone in several modern sound installations. The sound installation quite often combines the environmental sounds of the site in which it is set, and supplies new elements to this. In this way, the sound installation makes combinations of sound images and environmental sound and thus creates new sonic experiences in particular sites. In many cases, the sound installation utilizes various types of surround sound systems to generate this merger.

Critical Band is also played out in a kind of surround sound. Usually we connect this kind of sound emission to modern music, cinema, and electronic arts technological implementation of this particular auditory effect. However, experimentation in this area dates back quite a way. An early example being Thomas Tallis’ Spem In Alium, which was performed at the Nonesuch Palace in London in the late 1500s. The choir performing the piece was placed around the banqueting hall, creating a sort of analogue surround system taking advantage of the architectural space in that particular site. In contemporary sound art, Spem in Alium has been an inspiration for Janet Cardiff’s work Forty Part Motet, which is set in the Rideau Chapel in Ottawa. She is using Tallis’ score, where each voice in the choir has its own speaker in the chapel. The speakers are set up in a surround system around the chapel, and the audience move among them.

In Critical Band, on the other hand, we do not move. We sit in one place throughout the performance, facing in one direction, probably much like Spem In Alium was experienced in Nonesuch Palace. It is almost like the cinematic surround sound system, where we are always looking forwards, but at the same time curiously listening to sounds behind us. In Critical Band this experience makes us aware of the architectural and spatial dimensions of the site. The piece gives us constant spatial information of the place we are in, and even of the surroundings of the building.

In the score, Critical Band is termed ‘a site specific composition for 9-16 players and a resonant room’. Here again, the piece is set within a tradition of sound art in which the site become a major part of the realisation of the piece, which is particularly the case in numerous sound installations over the past few years.  Usually these kinds of works are also referred to as site-specific works. The sounds and the surround sound effects would be different if placed in other sites. However, Critical Band is a piece that is just as much site-responsive. The piece responds to the architecture, materials, geometry, and volumes of the site. This is also made clear by the analytical approach in the score, where analysis of the site’s room acoustics determine the pitch material and the basis for how the piece is played out.

Throughout the piece, the church it self is given a central role. It resonates and reverberates the score in addition to providing its own soundscape. By placing the performance of Critical Band inside a church, Lemur also evoke yet another meaning of the term resonance. As a site, the church provides its own ideas and conceptions, its own symbols and rituals connected to contemplation and reflection. The site specificity of Critical Band is closely connected to these elements, as the site evokes a particular mental resonance in the audience through its traditional social and religious practice, stories of inclusion and exclusion that are well know to most of the audience.

A performance of Critical Band brings new elements to the traditional church space. It stages the church in a new fashion, adding material for experiencing this place in a new way. It creates a dynamic in relation to how this space is normally understood, and brings forth a new experience based on both the composition, the space of the site, and the resonance between the two.  The former affects the way we interpret the latter, and vice versa.

In this way, Critical Band provides an intense and unique listening experience. It includes moments so silent that the gestures of the musicians become just as important as the quiet tones they are playing. As Lemur investigates the performance space we sometimes have to ask ourselves ‘is this sound emitting from an instrument, or the resonant church?’  In certain parts the composition resembles and amplifies the noise of the environment; the strings dwelling on single low notes for a long period of time, often without any pitch at all, but then again using short pitched tones resembling the subtle changes of the everyday sounds seeping into the church. In Korskirken, Critical Bands main focus is on the interplay between musical and environmental sounds by the use of masking techniques within the critical band. The result is a new, different, yet somehow familiar way of experiencing a church space.