Outside my window my neighbor's glass wind chimes are ringing loudly. The
sound describes the velocity of the wind. If I looked out at the motion
of the leaves on a nearby tree it would tell me the same thing. Far away
is the sound of a siren. As it approaches I can tell it is a fire truck,
and my mind automatically pictures it as it speeds past. The red truck and
the glass rectangles, the screaming sirens and the chiming, are all representations
occupying the same space and conveying the same sets of information. An
action is being performed, a transmission taking place.
A number of audio/radio artists use sonic space as a performance space, as the white room or black box in which an event is staged, or as the site specific location of an activity. The most important characteristic of this work is its dimensionality, its compositional and sculptural use of space. Beyond verbal language is the language of sound as place. Sound becomes object and image, voice becomes body. Sound creates the mis en scene for the action of the text, or functions as the "text". It describes and defines the physical environment in time 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. Radio 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 tranports 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 and alien, dark and deep and wet. The surrounding water ripples melodically with the motion of the paddle, echoing down tunnels announcing Thorington's presence. We realize she is not alone here. The caverns are teeming with a symphony of life that flies, crawls, scampers, swoops, and swims, hums, buzzes, and chatters around her and beyond the range of her vision in 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. Their resonances, and the rhythm of her movement through the water, measure distances and indicate boundaries. Currents of air chanting in long tones suggest the height and depth of the tunnel, while the lapping of water and the proximity of singing insects locates Thorington in it. The screeching of gulls signals light and open air is not far off. In the distance church bells ring, and the sky comes into view. 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 airy melodic voice (Davies) is high, girlish, and out of body, moving through the world like one of the angels in Wings of Desire. In search of herself, Amy plunges, Alice in Wonderland, through the rabbithole of her own existence, and follows 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". A girl with a harpoon, a suitcase, a gyroscope, a compass, and a jar of lizards, Amy is accompanied on her treck across the historical landscape by an accapella 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, old ragtime, 20s jazz, 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 invites her to lie down with him. She shoots him through the mouth with her proverbial harpoon and out climbs her philosophical bridegroom.
Amy's progression through this tale is 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 with the Appocalypse providing the wingless dragon, i.e. the Serpent, the bidders being 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, and the matter that is Amy Glennon. The story itself is put up for fierce bidding between Cartesian and Quantum, and "sold to the young woman holding a jar of lizards." The train whistle disappears into the night, as Amy "goes running with an apple in each hand".
As an audio art work commissioned for radio broadcast 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 of 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 arena. 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 field, each has its own discrete characteristics, which are not translatable from one perceptual mode to the other. Thus aural performance works must be recognized on their own terms.
Terra dell'Immaginazione by Helen Thorington was commissioned by RAI, RadioUno, Italy and is program #40 in the 1990 New American Radio series. What is the Matter in Amy Glennon? by Sheila Davies was commissioned by New American Radio, 1989.