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The Impossible Spaces of Memory

Joanna Bailie in Interview with Nicholas Moroz


In May Explore Ensemble soloists Emmanuelle Fleurot (piano) and Deni Teo (cello) perform in Oxford at the JdP Music Building with a programme focussing on the music of Joanna Bailie, along with works by Peter Ablinger, Morton Feldman, and Jonathan Packham. Ahead of the concert, the ensemble's artistic director, Nicholas Moroz, made this interview with Joanna, exploring the ideas behind her music as well as her thoughts on the contemporary music world at present.

NM
The concert in May has the subtitle ‘translation’, referring to Peter Ablinger’s Voices and Piano cycle. For me a phrase that sticks out in Ablinger’s note to these pieces is ‘music analyses reality’. Since your pieces often integrate live musicians with field recordings, I wonder: to what extent might this phrase also apply to your own music?

JB
I’m not sure if this phrase even applies to Ablinger’s work! What does he mean exactly? That reality passes through a filter of musical-ness, that it’s broken down into music-shaped bits (equal-tempered pitches, easily notated rhythms etc.)? Are we just talking about transcription, the rendering of one thing in a different medium, or something a little more? Maybe the idea that this rendering is subject to some kind of musical intervention?

In any case I don’t do that, or at least I don’t conceive of my work so much in these terms. I recently came across a video on youtube of one of my favourite writers, W.G. Sebald, being interviewed by Dutch TV. He said this: “I realise that making in prose a decent pattern out of what happens to come your way is a preoccupation, which, in a sense, has no higher ambitions than, for a brief moment in time, to rescue something out of that stream of history that keeps rushing past.” I relate to this statement quite closely, and I would consider in my case that the stream of history that I am trying to make sense of is sonic in nature, and possibly a little pitch-oriented. The second movement of Artificial Environment No.8, is focused exactly on this act of attempting to make ‘a decent pattern’ out of what is essentially random audio material. I don’t know if I manage to make the pattern decent or not! Anyway this pattern for me is not a transcription or an analysis, it really is only a pattern shaped out of the materials I have to hand. Perhaps another important thing to remember with regards to the field recordings I use, is that despite their feeling of realness and of immediacy, they are recordings and thus already historical in a very mundane sense of the word.

NM
Is your motive, to use Sebald’s exact word, to ‘rescue’ sounds; is there an ethical dimension?

JB
I don’t think Sebald means ‘rescue’ in an ethical sense and I wouldn’t think about it like that either. I think it’s more to do with the idea that this act of rescuing is all we are able to do to counter the fact that time slips through our fingers, accumulating only partially (and very subjectively) in each of our memories. It’s an acknowledgement of the notion that we are historical beings (with a small ‘h’)— as much as we might like to look to the future, it hasn’t happened yet and our only constant is the ‘now of things happening, turning into things that have passed. Photographs, audio recordings and film allow us to cling onto the things that happen a little more concretely, but they too are only able to partly capture what we see and hear and are more biased than we’d like to think.

 Joanna Bailie, Trains (2014) for cello and tape, excerpt.

Joanna Bailie, Trains (2014) for cello and tape, excerpt.

NM
How did you come to work with field recordings in the first place, was it born from a theoretical start point or did you come across it more serendipitously?

JB
It was absolutely the latter case. I had just started using electronics in my music and then a friend of mine was telling me that he’d bought a portable recording device. I thought that it might be an interesting thing for me to do, and that I could expand the range of material I had at my disposal for making electronics (up until that point I had only been using sine tones and things I could get onto my computer via CD). I really didn’t anticipate the extent to which I’d become ‘addicted’ to making field recordings, and that I would end up using them in such a prominent way in my work. This was back in 2009, a year incidentally when I also bought my first sound card (which made it possible for me to run a piece in a concert that used stereo sound and a click track). Luckily I had a small bit of income I could spend on electronic devices at this particular point in time, and in fact the history of my engagement with technology has been one of slowly amassing the possibilities to do things in line with whatever equipment I could afford to buy at that moment. The anecdote I always like telling though, is of one of my first field recording outings. I’d gone to record some cars on a street in Brussels (where I was living at the time) and at some point, probably because of the amplification of the sounds in my ears and my own level of concentration, I had the curious impression that all the things that I was hearing had been pre-composed and that they constituted music. It was a St Paul on the road to Damascus moment, this involuntary refocussing of my attention.

NM
Since memory itself seems to be one of the most significant subjects of your work, have their been particular artists (musical and beyond) who have been important for you in developing this particular interest?

JB
Actually I wrote a lot about memory in my PhD thesis, in relation to photography and other recording devices, and concerning the way that these do and do not relate to the way our actual memory works. Two texts that deal with these relationships are the short-story Funes the Memorious by Borges and the novella The invention of Morel by Casares (actually Borges and Casares, both from Argentina, were good friends). Funes the Memorious is about a boy who falls off a horse and subsequently develops total recall:

“We, at one glance, can perceive three glasses on a table; Funes, all the leaves and tendrils and fruit that make up a grape vine. He knew by heart the forms of the southern clouds at dawn on 30 April 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks on a book in Spanish binding he had seen only once and with the outlines of the foam raised by an oar in the Rio Negro the night before the Quebracho uprising.” 

In fact Funes ends up very unhappy indeed: it takes him one full day to remember a day, and he lacks the ability to abridge what he has experienced and make generalisations about it. I think that Borges is talking about recording technologies here, and the contrast between them and human memory, the very gappiness of which allows us to generate sense. The Invention of Morel, on the other hand concerns a man who comes across a party of people on a remote island, becomes fascinated with them before realising that they are in fact an elaborate three-dimensional, solid recording (which is on a loop). The man eventually decides to overdub himself into the action, and like the people from the party, dies as a result of having been recorded in this way.

I think Casares is imagining a world where the difference between the recording of the thing, and the thing itself is very slim, and where conceivably everything that ever happens could be captured in its entirety. It would be a world that would eventually become saturated, over-populated by recordings and leave little room for the present moment. One can imagine the parallels that could be drawn with our own current reality, and our obsession with documenting it.

Related to memory, is nostalgia. There is a wonderful book by Svetlana Boym called The future of nostalgia where she divides up nostalgia up into two categories: reflective and restorative. The second kind is the type employed by populist right-wing politicians trying to convince people that their country used to be a better, cosier place (navy blue passports! sovereignty! etc.) But it’s the first type that’s most relevant to my work. Boym thinks of reflective nostalgia as something that can be seen to dwell in the impossible spaces generated by “the repetition of the unrepeatable, materialization of the immaterial.”  It’s a nostalgia that celebrates in its own melancholy way the one-offness of the world.

NM
In our concert this May we’ve programme your piano and electronics piece Artificial Environment No.8, can you explain the title and ideas behind the Artificial Environments series?

JB
As you can probably tell by the number, AE8 wasn’t the first in the series(!), in 2011 I wrote AE1-5 for small chamber ensemble and tape. This piece has a recorded text part in which different sonic universes are described that seem to correspond to the electronic processing that had been used in each movement. In fact these environments are artificial sonic environments and there is an element of science fiction in the descriptions. For instance in AE1 we are supposed to imagine “a world where sound is subject to constant fluctuations in pitch and tempo as if it were being manually controlled like the playback of an old-fashioned tape machine.” Electronic processing is extremely apparent in all the AE series, and I guess “Artificial Environments” is a metaphor for the kind of transformations that take place. I kept the title for the next few pieces. Although the spoken text is gone, processing is still quite important in AE8. The first movement uses what I would call extreme band filtering, the second sonic freezing, and the last continuous transposition.

 Joanna Bailie, Artificial Environment No. 8 (2013), excerpt from part i: Babel

Joanna Bailie, Artificial Environment No. 8 (2013), excerpt from part i: Babel

NM
As you’re active throughout Europe as an artist, curator, and as the co-director of Plus-Minus Ensemble (and you mentioned the blue passports!); what’s your feeling towards culture in the UK and Europe right now? Do you feel there’s a strong correlation between politics and art?

JB
There is certainly an enormous divide between the UK contemporary music scene and the European one, though I would say that the line isn’t drawn exactly across the English channel because there had always been quite some exchange between The Netherlands and the UK, and these countries in turn are linked to the The States, Ireland and Australia.

There is kind of a Tanglewood-Proms power centre, and a prevailing aesthetic of post-Stravinskian modernism-lite/minimalism (HCMF is an important exception to this aesthetic, and as we know it looks to Europe as well as championing British experimentalism. Tectonics too, and of course your ensemble, Distractfold and my ensemble!) Goodness I am making generalisations here!

Europe is the France-Germany axis and various satellites. They have their own (sometimes problematic) orthodoxies of course, centred around Boulez and Spectralism on the one-hand, and then Lachenmann and various kinds of musiktheater and most recently, new-conceptualism on the other. They would never call contemporary music, ‘contemporary classical music’ in Europe, and have never heard of some of our most famous composers, only Brian Ferneyhough, Rebecca Saunders, James Dillon, Richard Barrett and a few others.

In some corners of the British new music scene, “Darmstadt” is still a dirty word, associated as it is quite wrongly, with only rigorous integral serialism. Another important difference, and I’m not quite sure what this means, is that on the continent and especially in Germany, the people running new music festivals, new music radio etc. are very often musicologists by training which is not usually the case in the UK (but please correct me if I’m wrong).

I’ve always been drawn far more to the European aesthetic than the British one, though I must say I’m not entirely sure I fit in here either, I’m just tolerated as a kind of weird outlier. My composition teacher when I was an undergrad (Roger Redgate) told me to leave the UK immediately and go and study in Europe (which I did) and I’ve lived on the mainland for over 20 years. My mother was Spanish and so I consider myself a European in another way too. Like many of my peers I am absolutely devastated by Brexit and consider it an enormous act of dumb-ass self-sabotage. I don’t know what it will mean in the future to British ensembles wanting to play in Europe. Will we need work-visas? Plus-Minus has always been proud of the fact that we play in Europe, and again I think that our repertoire reflects the fact that Matthew Shlomowitz and I are a bit more attracted to the European side of things.

I fear for the future of whatever cross-fertilisation there is between the British and European music scenes which for sure was something that had been growing in recent years. Is Tanglewood-Proms equivalent to the ‘special relationship’ and IRCAM-Darmstadt-Donaueshingen to the Franco-German EU power centre? It’s tempting to think that way, though I can’t believe that anyone involved in the arts in Britain, even the most aesthetically conservative new music people are ‘leavers’.

Further links

Joanna Bailie, website

Plus-Minus Ensemble

Interview: James Saunders