The Noises of Art: Audiovisual Practice in History, Theory and Culture (The School of Art, Aberystwyth University / The Courtauld Institute of Art, London / Aberystwyth Arts Centre) 4-6 September, 2o13.
Cantum pulcriorem invenire: Music in Western Europe, 1150-1350 (University of Southampton) 9-11 September, 2013.
DigiPal Symposium III (King’s College, London) 16 September, 2013.
Part 1. The Noises of Art
‘The boundary between visual art and aural modes of creative practice is porous.’ – John Harvey, Professor of Art, eye-ear, School of Art, Institute of Literature, Languages & Creative Arts, Aberystwyth University (excerpt from the mission statement of this conference).
As a research student working on interdisciplinary scholarship, I’m always looking for interesting, non-traditional conferences that might be applicable to my work. My focus on notation and perception does dip its toes in in art theory from time to time, and I thought that the Noises of Art conference might be a good way to develop some thoughts on notation as a meeting-place for art and sound. After submitting my abstract, I was invited to speak, with a paper titled ‘Aura, Perception, and Digital Surrogates: On the Modern Interpretation of Early Sources of Music Notation’. Initially, when I saw the programme, I was a bit concerned – I was one of only a handful of papers dealing with pre-20th century subject matter. The session in which I spoke was called ‘Seeing/Sound’, and the other two papers were ‘Walking the canal tow-paths of Staffordshire, how can the sounds encountered be captured in visual form? What happens when Klee’s Twittering Birds meets Messaien’s Petites Esquisses d’oiseaux?’ (Charlotte Jones, Loughbrough University), and ‘Real-time graphic visualization of multi-track sound: establishing a cross-modal relationship between geometrical form and electronic music’ (Irete Olowe, Queen Mary, University of London). A third virtual presentation was ‘Octophonetics: early audiovisual practice within the spectrum of noise’ (Jan Thoben, Humboldt Universität, Berlin).
My paper dealt with the existence of music solely in its visual form (specifically English song in the 12th and 13th centuries), the difficulties that arise when attempting an interpretation of music without sonic reference, and ways in which scholars and teachers of early music notation can develop and use online resources incorporating digital images of manuscripts to facilitate the teaching and performance of this notation to undergraduate students. This is also a central theme of my PhD research at Royal Holloway, and writing the paper allowed me to explore the theme of the ‘aura’ in relation to the way we perceive, learn, and interact with early notation. I was introduced to the concept of the aura through studies on image culture (including studies of art perception and theories of photographic engagement in modern digital culture¹), and I felt that this audience, with a strong background in visual art, would be a good place to find some constructive criticism for my research.
Seeing the other papers in my session, I was concerned that mine didn’t really fit with the 20th-century (and beyond) focus of the conference. But as Charlotte and Irete gave their respective papers, I became aware of the parallels between our work. They both were attempting a visual representation of existing sound (either current or historical), while I was attempting to encourage sonic reconstruction of existing visual representation of sound. This link was not lost on the audience, and the questions following the papers were stimulating and varied. The digital methodology of my work allowed me to engage with people presenting papers as diverse as ‘Audible architectural models’ (Urs Walter, Berlin Institute of Technology) and ‘Translating a composition: performing the interval II’ (Johanna Hallsten, Loughborough University).
Happily, I did get to hear another medievalist present. Irene Noy and Michaela Zöschg (both PhD candidates at The Courtauld Institute of Art, London) gave a fantastic presentation entitled ‘Listening art historians: a cross-period collage of seeing and hearing’. Noy spoke about sonic developments in art exhibits in Berlin ca. 1960-1980, and the ‘white box’ layout of many galleries, while Zöschg (hidden from view behind a screen) spoke about Clarissan sisters in the fourteenth century and the acousmatic sound they experienced while listening to and engaging in prayer. I apologize for the very simplistic description of a presentation that delved deep into two contrasting cultures while still drawing effective parallels in scholarship, but both scholars presented unique ways in which art historians can engage with sound both in terms of physical experience (through galleries) and the idea of sonic reconstruction when examining monastic life in the fourteenth century. Their presentation went beyond traditional forms of scholarly presentation, incorporating theatrical techniques and sonic disconnect (hiding Zöschg behind the screen) to encourage the audience to think about the perceptive implications of acousmatic sound and the ways in which we engage with sound when we cannot visualize its source.
As a result of this diverse and interesting conference, I came to believe even more strongly in the importance of allowing for a wide definition of the word ‘notation’ and studying how we perceive music’s visual qualities as well as its sound. Many of the artists presenting were working with different methods of creating graphic representations of sound, or allowing naturally-occurring visual patterns to be used as representations of sound (Canadian artist Duncan MacDonald’s use of birch bark to create a player piano scroll, for example), and the wide array of ways that people envisage music proved just how varied perception can be. It was inspiring to speak with so many people working slightly outside the standard curriculum, to hear their passionate opinions about art and education and the interaction of the two, and to become more aware of the importance of connecting with scholars and artists outside our direct scope of research. The experience allowed me to develop a more solid method of speaking about my research to non-specialists without watering down the scholarly content, and I got to meet some really great people.
¹ Latour, Bruno, and Lowe, Adam. ‘The Migration of the Aura, or How to Explore the Original through Its Facsimiles’ in Switching Codes: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and Arts, eds. Thomas Bartscherer and Roderick Coover (University of Chicago, 2011). // Murray, Susan. ‘Digital Images, Photo-Sharing, and Our Shifting Notions of Everyday Aesthetics’, Journal of Visual Culture 7 (2008): 147-163.